Photo of a woman helping a young child find a book

Photo Courtesy of The Reading Partnership

8 places you can volunteer to increase literacy

Share your love of words, numbers and digital communication with kids, teens or adults across Toronto and the GTA

Literacy isn’t only about reading and writing. Being able to understand numbers (numeracy) and communicate in the digital world are crucial components, too. And not everyone finds it easy to develop those skills.

About 17 percent of Canadians have trouble with even the simplest written communications, according to Statistics Canada. Another 32 percent have some difficulty reading, meaning important day-to-day items—such as job applications, medication packaging, street signs and even food labels—can be confusing or incomprehensible.

Low literacy skills don’t just mean missing out on a good beach read, either. They’re correlated with an array of social issues, including poverty, under- or unemployment, and even negative health outcomes. So improving a person’s literary skills really can improve their whole life—and it feels great to make a difference. “You have a sense that you’ve changed someone,” says Trisha Patrick, executive director of the Skills Upgrading Centre in Newmarket, who started out as a volunteer tutor. “Once they get it, they don’t lose it.”

The good news: There are lots of literacy-building programs where volunteers can make a difference. Here are eight places we love around Toronto and the GTA.

Photo of a woman helping a child write on a piece of paper

1. The Reading Partnership

This United Way–supported agency runs parent-child-focused literacy programs at schools and community centres in the Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park (KGO) neighbourhood. Their flagship Reading Partnership for Parents (RPP) program teaches parents how to help their children (aged four to six) build the literacy skills they need to be successful in school. The new Reading Partnership for Black Parents program has adapted the model to address specific educational issues that crop up in predominantly Black communities. Many kids in KGO are struggling to meet provincial literacy standards, and “these kids need one-on-one support,” says Camesha Cox, the organization’s executive director. “In a community that is low-income, if parents are struggling to put a roof over their head and food on the table, where are they going to find money to hire a tutor?” Reading Partnership bridges those gaps with free individualized programs, family meals during tutoring sessions and referrals to wrapround supports. Volunteers facilitate programs, fundraise, work on communications and help kids develop their writing in the 360 Stories program.
Where: Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park, Scarborough
How to apply: Volunteer positions are flexible and can be anything from a single day helping at an event to weekly attendance at RPP sessions. Email for more information on where you can help.(Photo Courtesy of The Reading Partnership)

2. Therapeutic Paws’ Paws to Read program

Volunteers (human, feline and canine) for this non-profit visit hospitals, libraries, schools, long-term care homes and other facilities, sharing companionship of the four-footed variety. The Paws to Read program pairs kids who are having reading challenges with volunteer dog friends, who listen patiently as the children read them stories. Having a friendly, non-judgmental listener helps boost confidence, so participants learn to enjoy reading aloud and reduce their fear of making mistakes. (Dogs never complain when you skip a word.)

Where: Locations across Canada
How to apply: Contact the team leader in your area. Dog and cat volunteers have to be healthy and up-to-date on vaccinations, and pass a temperament test. Human volunteers need to provide character references and have a vulnerable sector background check. They also must commit to volunteering at least once every three weeks.

3. Skills Upgrading Centre

Run by Literacy Council York-Simcoe, this United Way–supported program serves native or fluent English speakers in the Newmarket area. (It can also refer clients from other areas to their sister organizations, the Learning Centre for Georgina and Literacy Council York-South in Thornhill.) Volunteers receive training and work one-on-one with clients to create learner-centred tutoring plans. Some help with day-to-day literacy skills—like filling out employment forms, using computers or understanding household bills—while others work on GED exam prep. Volunteers also benefit from excellent support, including supplemental training (on issues such as learning disabilities and mental health) and networking sessions.
Where: 1100 Gorham Street, Suite 15, Newmarket
How to apply: Call 905-853-6279 for an interview to discuss volunteer opportunities and see how your skills fit with client needs. Successful applicants must commit to one-on-one tutoring sessions for three hours a week (including an hour of prep time) for a one-year term.

Photo of a woman and a young child playing on a iphone

4. Youth Empowering Parents (YEP)

This program turns the tables on mentorship and puts kids in charge. Children of newcomer parents often act as language tutors and translators for their families. YEP harnesses those skills and trains youth aged 11 to 19 to act as informal educators in conversational English and computer skills, building both adults’ literacy skills and children’s leadership abilities. Each child works with a single adult, which allows mature learners to go at their own pace. “Youth love it because [volunteering] lets them take charge and show their skills,” says Agazi Afewerki, YEP’s executive director. Plus, adult learners at YEP (and in many of the other programs below) often find one-on-one mentoring less stressful than high-pressure classroom lessons.
Where: Twenty-five program locations across Toronto
How to apply: Visit YEP’s volunteer/internship page to see available opportunities and to submit a statement of interest.(Photography by Abbey Kachmar)

5. The Story Garden

Tucked into a bright corner of the Sheridan Centre Mall, this lovely non-profit literacy centre is a welcoming oasis where children, adults and seniors meet up and share their love of reading. Teens can take part in the Leaders for Readers program and volunteer to mentor kids in kindergarten to Grade 3 who need a little one-on-one reading practice. (High schoolers can get up to 20 hours of the volunteer credits they need to graduate by participating.) Adults can volunteer in all sorts of programs, from reading to preschoolers to participating in Story Circles with newcomers who want to boost their English skills.
Where: 2225 Erin Mills Pkwy., Mississauga
How to apply: Teens interested in the Leaders for Readers program can email their résumés to Adults who want to get involved can email their résumés to and schedule an interview.

6. Participation House

This centre for adults with developmental disabilities offers a unique Adult Literacy Program, developed by a York District School Board teacher to meet the specific needs of Participation House’s residential and drop-in clients. Volunteers work in small-ratio groups (1:1 or 1:4) on reading and social skills that clients need to become more independent. The curriculum varies depending on participants’ requirements, and can cover anything from reading books and day-to-day communications, to building skills for independent living, such as banking, computing and résumé writing.
Where: 9 Butternut Lane, Markham
How to apply: Applicants must be 19 or older, be up to date on all vaccinations and have a vulnerable sector background check. Call 905-294-0944 to speak with a volunteer coordinator and then fill out an application.

7. West Neighbourhood House

Formerly known as St. Christopher House, West Neighbourhood House is a United Way–supported agency that serves a number of communities in west-end Toronto. The Adult Literacy program runs out of its Ossington Ave. location, and helps English-speaking adults who want to upgrade their reading, writing, math and digital skills. Volunteer tutors work one-on-one with clients to meet their goals, whether it’s prepping for college or mastering everyday communications, like banking, shopping or applying for a job.
Where: 248 Ossington Ave., Toronto
How to apply: Tutors must be 19 years or older, speak English well and be open-minded and interested in community development. They must also commit to three hours of tutoring a week (which includes an hour of prep time). Call 416-539-9000 or email Then fill out the tutor questionnaire, which the organization can send via email, fax or mail. Selected candidates have to complete a one-hour interview, which includes a half-hour video.

Photo of a woman and a young child reading a book together

8. Toronto Public Library (TPL)

The TPL has two volunteer opportunities to choose from. The Adult Literacy Program helps English-speaking adults aged 16 and older work on their reading, writing and math skills. The Leading to Reading program supports kids in Grades 1 to 6 who are having difficulty reading. Successful volunteers get some nice side benefits, too: They can make personal photocopies at the reduced staff rate, and adult literacy volunteers don’t have to pay overdue fines if they tutor for more than six months.
Where: Locations across Toronto
How to apply: Volunteers must speak and write English fluently and be able to communicate and work well with others. Volunteers for the Adult Literacy Program must be 19 or older and agree to a six-month commitment. For Leading to Reading, adults and teens must demonstrate that they are mature, work well with kids and can serve as role models, and must submit a vulnerable sector background check (the TPL will pick up the tab for this part).
Download the Adult Literacy or Leading to Reading application form, fill it out and drop it off at any branch of the Toronto Public Library.(Photo Courtesy of Toronto Public Library)

International Literacy Day is September 8th. This annual awareness day promotes access to quality education, one of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Volunteering to help others boost their reading, writing, mathematical and digital communication skills is a good way to make a difference and help everyone around the world meet this goal.


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