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How Literacy Levels Can Impact Your Career

Wednesday | August 16, 2017 | by Shaunna-Marie Kerr

Woman studying in classroom

Job developers, employers, and recruiters will tell you that strong communication skills are one of the most important factors in finding, maintaining, and succeeding in your job. Effective communication has the largest impact on both employer and employee satisfaction and can help to build and maintain positive working relationships. Communication skills are what make people feel valued and understood when interacting with others. Language and literacy skills are both essential parts of communication especially in a situation where English may not be your first language.

You may find that you have to put more effort in developing these language and literacy skills in your new country in order to reach the level of career success that you want. Although they can accurately measure your language abilities, tests such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) do not measure communication skills as a whole. Being an effective communicator is about the balance between language and literacy skills, and how you use both to interact with the people around you.

The Difference Between Language and Literacy

If you think that language and literacy refer to the same thing, you are not alone. Although many people use these words interchangeably, they actually refer to two distinct but related concepts. Language is “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.” It is specifically about linguistic factors like understanding the alphabet, general vocabulary, and sentence structure of a particular language. Language skills are “portable” in the sense that the English language is technically the same across the globe, but the English language is used differently depending on the location.

Literacy is about non-linguistic factors such as cultural knowledge, educational background, and industry- or employer-specific vocabulary. Literacy is not portable because each new environment has different communication norms that can give several meanings to the same words. As defined by the UNESCO Education Sector: “Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.”

Literacy is a skill that needs to be exercised to maintain it. It needs to evolve multiple times in a variety of places and is not guaranteed even among those who are fluent in English. In Canada, 42 percent of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills despite almost 60 percent of the population being fluent in the English language. This percentage is made up of Canadians who identified English as their first language, but their literacy levels were lower than non-native Canadians who identified a different language as their mother tongue. In the United States, more than 90 million adults lack the literacy skills needed to fully engage with the workforce.

Although literacy skills are important to fully participate in social and civic activities within your new community, they are essential for securing and maintaining employment. Aspects of literacy such as comprehension skills and the ability to analyze complex pieces of information are especially useful different sectors that include information and communication technology, engineering, finance, and medicine.

As we move closer toward the knowledge economy, higher literacy levels will be a defining factor in employability across all sectors. In Canada alone, less than 60 percent of native Canadians with low literacy levels are employed, and employment rates decrease among non-native Canadians in which English is not their first language. In the United States, roughly 40 percent of immigrants lack basic literacy skills, and there are strong indicators of lower labour market participation as a direct result. Aside from the impacts on finding employment, literacy levels affect your ability to pursue the education and training opportunities that can be crucial to long-term career success.

Literacy skills also influence your capacity to comfortably and confidently communicate your ideas and input in team meetings, conversations with your boss, and interactions with external stakeholders. High levels of literacy allow you to show your value as an employee and work to your full potential while taking the lead in business decisions and discussions. It can be a fine line to distinguish because “language” is about knowing certain words and vocabularies, but “literacy” is about having the confidence to use those words in a variety of settings and being willing to engage with others in all aspects of daily life.

Strategies for Improving Literacy Skills

There are many resources you can use to improve your English language skills, but finding resources that focus on improving literacy skills can be more challenging. Luckily, you can work on improving your literacy skills independently by incorporating a few new practices into your daily life.

To increase your knowledge of industry-specific vocabulary, you can start reading trade magazines and newsletters on a regular basis. As mentioned above, part of literacy is being aware of the specific context in which words, phrases, and statements are being used. These magazines and newsletters will not only help you become familiar with industry jargon and terminology, but they can also keep you updated on what is happening in your industry of interest. You can also participate in webinars where industry experts are speaking. These webinars will provide you with a better understanding of specific issues impacting the field in which you want to work, and they can be used to study specific words and phrases that presenters use, as well as how they interact with each other in a professional setting.

Increasing your understanding of the wider social and civic context in your new country is also important. Try completing crossword puzzles from local daily newspapers, or watch educational game shows such as Jeopardy during your leisure time. Although it may seem trivial, these types of activities can introduce new words into your vocabulary while also providing insight into other things such as popular culture and current social issues. Literacy skills can also be improved by joining local community groups and associations, or by volunteering in community agencies. Much like networking, improving your literacy skills can be accomplished through informal channels that are low-cost and that do not place an unnecessary burden on you.

When discussing how communication impacts the socio-economic inclusion of skilled immigrants, the difference between language and literacy is often overlooked. IELTS scores and language levels determined by other exams are valid and important, but a high level of literacy is central to career success.

Shaunna-Marie Kerr

Shaunna-Marie Kerr is the Program Manager at WES Global Talent Bridge Canada.