Reports & Data
Reading the Future
Many people find it difficult to believe that Canada—one of the leaders among the G8 industrialized nations—has a literacy problem. However, statistics show that more than 48% of all Canadian adults (those over the age of 16) lack the kind of prose literacy skills required to cope in a modern society. This means that they have difficulty reading, understanding and functioning effectively with written material, according to the OECD’s International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS).
And the problem is not going to go away.
In its landmark 2008 report, Reading the Future: Planning to meet Canada’s future literacy needs, CCL explained that thanks to a number of demographic trends (population growth, aging population and immigration rates) Canada will likely witness little to no overall progress in adult literacy rates over the next two decades.
According to the report’s projections, by 2031 about 47% of adults will have low prose literacy skills (below IALSS Level 3) meaning that the face of low adult literacy in Canada will remain virtually unchanged for years to come. The report also provided regional literacy projections as part of its interactive PALMM tool (Projections of Adult Literacy—Measuring Movement) a free online program that gives users the ability to calculate and compare future literacy rates for 10 provinces and three territories.
Thanks to new, previously unreleased data, CCL is now able to provide literacy projections on an unprecedented city level. CCL’s new report, The Future of Literacy in Canada’s Largest Cities, offers adult literacy projections for Canada’s largest cities: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa.
These new projections have been incorporated into an updated and expanded PALMM tool which now allows users to calculate adult literacy rates in five-year spans from 2001 to 2031 for Canada’s four largest cities, based on variables such as age, immigration status and education level.
As previously reported CCL’s projections of adult literacy rates in Canada as a whole show little change over the coming decades. However, this new data reveals that there are considerable differences among Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa. (See Figure 1.)
The report reveals that Ottawa can expect to see an 80% increase in adults with low literacy; from approximately 275,000 in 2001 to nearly 500,000 by 2031. Toronto and Vancouver meanwhile will experience increases of 64%, with the former jumping from 1.9 million in 2001 to nearly 3.2 million by 2013 and the latter from nearly 800,000 in 2001 to more than 1.3 million by 2031.
Figure 1: Proportion of adults with low prose literacy skills* 2031 status compared to change in literacy levels between 2001-2031
* Low prose literacy is defined as those who scored below Level 3 on the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS).
CCL projections show that in actual numbers approximately 15 million adult Canadians by 2031 will have low literacy—a 25% increase from 30 years previous (2001). One big factor in that increase will be the growing number of senior citizens who will have low literacy skills over the next generation. By 2031, CCL predicts that this number will reach 6.2 million—an increase of more than double from 3 million in 2001.
Another factor in the increase is the number of immigrants with low literacy. While the total proportion of immigrants with literacy skills below Level 3 will decrease from 67% in 2001 to 61% in 2031, the absolute number of immigrants with low-level literacy skills will actually increase by 61%, to more than 5.7 million by 2031. However, those with higher literacy skills will more than double from 1.8 million to 3.7 million, offsetting the increase somewhat.
Unless some action is taken to reverse this trend, the literacy dilemma we are facing can translate into profound challenges for Canada’s social well-being and economic prosperity. Research shows that adults with low literacy experience more health problems, are more likely to experience medication errors, have more workplace accidents, earn less income, live shorter lives, and are more likely to be unemployed.
In order to maintain a healthy population and to stay competitive in a global environment, Canada must address these issues today—not 20 years from now.