The Issue

One in four adults in Waterloo Region are functioning with Level 1 literacy. People with Level 1 literacy experience daily challenges such as: trouble filling out a catalogue order form; difficulties following dosage instructions on medicine; completing a job application form; using online banking; completing the online application for Employment Insurance; and reading health and wellness information. Level 3 is considered the level required to fully participate in today's knowledge-based economy. There has not been a significant shift in the literacy rate in adults for many years. 

Why focus on early literacy?

Early literacy contributes to increased employment and earnings.

Early literacy contributes to decreased spending on Employment Insurance, Social Assistance and Workers Compensation.

Early literacy contributes to better health and lower health care costs.

Early literacy contributes to higher high school graduation rates.

The Focus

The Early Literacy Alliance of Waterloo Region (ELAWR), in collaboration with Overlap, is currently working on the “Prescription for Literacy” project. The aim of the project is to reach out to the health care community – a universal access point for families – to highlight a critical window of opportunity for early literacy development.

We want to create an early literacy movement that drives people to understand the critical importance of early literacy and its resulting impact on our children and society. The health care community is a trusted resource for families and is therefore a powerful channel for connecting and engaging parents with the importance of early literacy. ELAWR will collaborate with Overlap to investigate possible health care channels and design mechanisms for driving behaviour change in hopes of improving early literacy skills.

We are using the “Design Thinking” approach, which is a method for solving complex problems. This approach is empathy and reality driven, by focusing on the people affected by the problem in order to solve it in a way that works for them and their reality.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is an approach to problem solving that puts the needs of people experiencing a problem at the core. It provides a toolkit for deeply understanding people’s needs and experiences, generating ideas to meet those needs, and then implementing innovative and practical solutions.

This project is designed to spur creativity and innovation by engaging organizations that serve children and their families in designing, testing and implementing new or re-imagined approaches to ignite a passion for early literacy.


Designing a new approach to early literacy

A movement to ignite passion for early literacy development


The Importance of Literacy

Why is it important to read with your child? Is it because it will help them learn how to read and write, comprehend ideas and images, and interpret numbers and problems? Yes to all of the above. But the importance of early literacy development goes far beyond what normally is thought of when people hear the word “literacy”.

Literacy means a lot to a society’s overall health. Did you know that Canadians with the lowest health literacy skills are more than 2.5 times as likely to be in fair or poor health when compared to those with the highest health literacy skills? Or that an estimated 60% of Canadian adults don’t have the necessary skills to manage their health literacy needs? (Decoda Literacy Solutions, 2016; Canadian Council on Learning, 2008). Not only is this a problem for individuals and families, but this could have a major effect on the society’s economy. In 2009 there was a study conducted that examined the cost of low health literacy levels in Canada. Mitic & Rootman (2012) found that the expense of low health literacy could amount to an additional 8 billion dollars spent per year within the health care system.

Indeed, literacy can mean a lot for a society’s economy. For example, another study found that if a country is able to improve its average literacy score by 1%, labour productivity would increase by 2%, resulting in the GDP per capita increasing by approximately 1.5% (Coulombe & Tremblay, 2005). Basically what this means is that investments in education and skills training are important to economic growth, specifically, up to three times as important as investments in machinery and equipment (Decoda Literacy Solutions, 2016).

What about literacy and the justice system? In Canada, offenders are three times as likely to have lower literacy rates when compared to the rest of the population. A study conducted within the Correctional Service of Canada found that over 70% of inmates tested below a grade 8 literacy level (Boe, 1998).

So where does the answer lie? Or better yet, where does the “prescription for literacy” start? The answer is simple – the path to improved literacy starts early in life. The home environment has been found to provide the most optimal learning setting for children ages 0-5 (Petitto, 2009;Roberts, Jurgens & Burchinal, 2005). Multiple studies indicate that shared reading practices starting from birth (and even prenatally) can be a strong predictor of later reading activities (Decoda Literacy Solutions, 2016). Families who engage in shared reading time right from birth help their baby feel safe, loved and ready for school and life, and research shows that reading aloud is the single most important aspect to helping your child prepare for reading and learning (

Taking these findings in to account, “literacy” can mean “family”. Parents who engage in reading activities with their child feel more connected and influential to their child’s wellbeing. The child will then feel more inclined to share reading activities with their parents, in-turn. It’s a never-ending cycle of family wellbeing, all starting with a book.

So why are we doing this project? To improve community wellbeing. Using literacy as a starting point can indeed help us as a society in the long run. Most importantly, we are hoping to promote the benefits of early literacy development so that every child has the opportunity to reach their full literacy potential. We are a group of organizations who share a passion for igniting a literacy movement.

Please feel free to follow the blog as we start our journey, and contact us if you wish to find out how you can join the movement.



Want more information or to get involved?

If you'd like to stay connected to this project or learn about how you might get involved, please contact the project team through this form:

Name *


Early Literacy Alliance of Waterloo Region:

Overlap Associates:

Lyle S. Hallman Foundation:


Boe, R. (1998). A two year follow-up of federal offenders who participated in the Basic Adult Education (ABE) Program. Ottawa: Correctional Service of Canada. Retrieved from: collection_2010/scc-csc/PS83-3-60-eng.pdf

Canadian Council on Learning. (2008). Health literacy in Canada: a healthy understanding. Ottawa: Canadian Council on Learning. Retrieved from:

Coulombe, S. & Tremblay, J. (2005). Public investment in skills: are Canadian governments doing enough? Retrieved from https://www. commentary_217.pdf

Decoda Literacy Solutions. (2016). Fact Sheet: Importance of Literacy. Retreived from

Decoda Literacy Solutions. (2016). Fact Sheet: Health Literacy. Retreived from

International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey. (2005). Statistics Canada. Retrieved from

Mitic, W. & Rootman, I. (2012). An inter-sectoral approach for improving health literacy for Canadians: a discussion paper. Victoria, BC: Public Health Association of BC. Retrieved from: oralApproachforHealthLiteracy-FINAL.pdf

National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). The Health Literacy of America’s Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Alexandria, VA: National Center for Education Statistics

Petitto, L. (2009). New discoveries from the bilingual brain and mind across the life span: Implications for education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 3(4), 185-197. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-228X.2009.01069.x

Roberts, J., Jurgens, J., & Burchinal, M. (2005). The role of home literacy practices in preschool children’s language and emergent literacy skills. Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research, 48(2), 345- 359. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2005/024)


Laura Dick, Waterloo Public Library

Jaime Griffis, Idea Exchange

Kelly Kipfer, Waterloo Public Library

Machelle Denison, Strong Start Charitable Foundation

Colette Moffat, Strong Start Charitable Foundation

Kim Krueger-Kischak, Region of Waterloo Library

Kathilee Porter, Project Coordinator, Prescription for LIteracy