Reports and Data

What is literacy and how is it measured?

What is literacy?

For many Canadians, literacy refers to a individual’s ability to read and write—something which has come to be known as “basic literacy.” As the International Council for Adult Education notes, basic literacy is generally understood as:

learning to read and write (text and numbers), reading and writing to learn, and developing these skills and using them effectively for meeting basic needs.[1]

Universal access to quality education in developed countries has helped to shape this concept of literacy. In Canada, we go to great lengths to ensure that children develop the literacy skills they need to learn other subjects. (For a description of these forms of literacy, please see the section “How do we measure literacy in Canada?”) As a result, it is assumed that all Canadians are “literate.”

However, as CCL’s 2007 State of Learning report explains, true literacy encompasses much more than just these basic skills. It includes the ability to analyse things, understand general ideas or terms, use symbols in complex ways, apply theories, and perform other necessary life skills―including the ability to engage in the social and economic life of the community.”[2]

This broader concept of literacy is called functional literacy. A joint Statistics Canada, OECD study defines functional literacy as:

the ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities at home, at work, and in the community―to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.[3]

Unlike basic literacy, with its focus on acquiring skills, functional literacy deals with how people actually use such skills to live and work in society.

Recent research in fields such as sociology, the cognitive sciences, linguistics, anthropology and education have contributed to an even broader more inclusive view of literacy, called plural literacy. According to the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO):

“A plural view of literacy recognizes that there are many literacy practices that are embedded in social, political, and cultural processes, personal circumstances and socio-economic structures.”[4]

This view of literacy sees it as an evolving set of skills, with less of an emphasis on a fixed set of generic skills (as in basic literacy) or measurable technical and life skills (as in functional literacy).[5]

Similarly, there are studies of multiple literacy that focus on encouraging students to take meaning from, and to understand how, literacy can help them in different social contexts.[6] A literacy expert has expressed it this way:

“Literacy is meaningful to students to the extent that it relates to daily realities and helps them to act on them.”[7]

These plural and multiple views of literacy are important because they highlight the many different ways we use language in our homes, workplaces, schools, communities and social groups. What we use literacy to do varies in different settings.

The result is that the literacy needs of people in rural or remote communities are different from those of urban dwellers. The literacy challenges of Aboriginal peoples are not the same as those of French-speaking minority communities outside of Quebec, or of disabled persons or of recent immigrants. Some research suggests that literacy is influenced by the broader culture―and by class, gender, ethnicity and region. The result is that:

Many of us can “read” texts we cannot understand (tax forms, perhaps, or insurance documents, or scientific journals)―we can read the words, but not the world they represent.[8]

While there are other ways of looking at literacy, we need to consider that the way literacy is defined affects how problems are identified and what is done to solve them.

For example, government literacy policies intended to create employment and develop work-related skills reflect a functional view of literacy.[9] A plural or multiple literacy approach seeks to achieve more communal results.[10] The exclusive use of functional literacy policies would have little impact on multiple or plural literacy objectives―such as better health outcomes, expanded adult learning and more civic engagement. Therefore, the creation of literacy policies needs to address functional and plural/multiple literacies.

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Why is literacy important?

Literacy, like riding a bike, can involve basic or complex skills. The novice who rides his bike to work each day needs less-developed skills than say, a professional cyclist who is competing in the Tour de France. Therefore, we should not be asking simply if Canadians are able to read and write, rather we should be concerned about how well they read and write.

Why? Because the world is rapidly changing. The effects of globalization and free trade, better communication and information technologies, and the rise of societies that use knowledge and information to create wealth, have resulted in a growing demand for highly skilled workers. This global competition for skilled, literate workers explains why literacy has become so important for Canada.[11]

Literacy is about more than just words and meaning.[12] It is important because it affects peoples’ lives directly, impacting their chances of employment,[13] level of income[14] and type of occupation.[15] Research show that higher literacy skills can lead to better jobs, increased incomes and greater productivity.[16] Literacy skills also affect social status, level of political participation, opportunities for cultural expression, health, the survival of languages, access to social services and opportunities to learn.[17] Having good literacy skills enhances a country’s quality of life by reducing poverty, lowering unemployment, lessening the need for public assistance and encouraging better parenting.[18]

As highlighted in CCL’s 2007 State of Learning in Canada report, , literacy is an essential skill that affects all aspects of our daily lives:

Literacy has become an essential part of the fabric of modern societies, a thread that links all aspects of life and living in our contemporary world. Its reach is extensive and complex, influencing how fully and effectively a person is able to engage in the social and economic life of his or her community.[19]

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How do we measure literacy in Canada?

There have been two major international surveys that provide information on literacy rates in Canada. The first study was the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS).[20] The second and more recent study was the 2003 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL), which assessed adult literacy proficiency in seven countries, including Canada.[21]

IALS was conducted in 24 countries from 1994 to 1998, and assessed three types of literacy skills in adults aged 16 to 65:

Prose literacy―the knowledge and skills needed to understand and use information from texts, including editorials, news stories, poems and fiction;

Document literacy―the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various formats, such as tables, graphs, schedules, charts, forms, and maps; and

Quantitative literacy―the knowledge and skills required to apply arithmetic operations to numbers embedded in printed materials. These types of skills are used, for example, when balancing a chequebook, figuring out a tip or completing an order form.[22]

Each of these three literacy domains was measured on a 500-point scale broken into five levels of skill (Level 1 being the lowest, Level 5 the highest). Level 3 is considered to be the minimum level required by an individual to function in a modern society and economy.

Subsequent to IALS, the Canadian component of the ALL―the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey or IALSS 2003[23]―was published in 2005 in a report entitled Building on Our Competencies: Canadian Results of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey 2003. The IALSS provides us with the most recent and detailed picture of the literacy skills of Canadians.[24]

While the ALL and the IALSS were released about four years ago, it is safe to assume that literacy levels would not have changed much since then. Consequently, the results of these studies are still valuable.

The ALL and IALSS went beyond measurement of literacy and included essential or life skills. For this purpose, the old IALS’ quantitative literacy was re-defined as numeracy and altered to improve its reliability. (The IALS quantitative literacy and the ALL/IALSS numeracy results, therefore, can not be compared.) IALSS describes numeracy as:

a broader, more inclusive measure of mathematics skills and conceptual mathematical knowledge. This expanded scale measures more than the ability to perform mathematical operations on numbers embedded in text by including many tasks that require no or little reading.[25]

A fourth scale, problem-solving, was added to the ALL/IALSS as well, but given its newness, cannot be compared with the earlier IALS survey. The ALL/IALSS describes problem-solving as:

goal-directed thinking and action in situations for which no routine solutions exist…. The understanding of the problem situation and its step-by-step transformation, based on planning and reasoning, constitute the process of problem-solving.[26]

Although the data from ALLS were not collected for the purpose of measuring health literacy, a large subset of the ALLS test items contain broadly defined health content to derive a scale for health literacy based on the following areas:

  • health promotion and behaviours related to healthy habits; health protection and accident prevention;
  • disease prevention;
  • health-care activities, such as learning about illness or disease; and,
  • navigating the health-care system.

The Canadian Public Health Association defines health literacy as “skills to enable access, understanding and use of information for health.” These literacy skills are used for a wide range of daily tasks, such as making healthy lifestyle choices, finding and understanding health and safety information, and locating proper health services.[27]

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How well do Canadians read and write?

Looking at Canadians aged 16 to 65, the 1994 IALS reported that Canada scored fifth out of 20 countries on the prose literacy scale, behind Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands. Canada scored in the middle of the pack on the quantitative and document literacy assessments, with the United States and the United Kingdom scoring lower and Chile last.

The IALS results were a cause for concern: every country surveyed had some sort of a literacy problem. Even in Sweden, which scored highest overall, 28% of adults scored at the lowest levels (prose scale, Level 1 and Level 2). In contrast, about 42% of Canada’s adults were below the OECD threshold of Level 3 on the prose scale (16.6% at Level 1 and 25.6% at Level 2). Canada had similar percentages on the document (18.2% at Level 1 and 24.7% at Level 2) and quantitative scales (16.9% at Level 1 and 26.1% at Level 2).[28]

The IALSS (2003) survey reported that the average literacy score for Canadians had not changed much during the nine-year period since the first survey (IALS). On the prose scale, the average score moved from 278.8 to 280.8, a change of only two points. In both studies, 43% of working-age adults had skills below Level 3 on the prose scale.

What did change was the size of Canada’s population. In 1994, 18.4 million working-age adults were living in Canada. By 2003, this number had grown to 21.4 million, up by 3 million. Although the proportion did not change much, the population growth means that the number of Canadians with low literacy (scoring below Level 3) increased from 7.8 million to 8.9 million, a gain of 1.1 million.

A closer look reveals that the number of people at Level 1 on the two surveys remained the same, at 3.1 million persons. The number of people at level 2 increased in percentage terms (from 24.8% to 27.3%) and in absolute numbers (from 4.6 million to 5.8 million).

The good news was that 58% of the total adult population had average document-literacy scores at Level 3 and above―meeting or exceeding the international standard (Level 3). For employed Canadians, the figure rose to about 62%, a strong base upon which to build a competitive economy. The absolute number of Canadian adults above level 3 in the two studies grew from 10.8 million to 12.4 million, up by 1.6 million.

However, Canada’s performance at Level 4 and Level 5 decreased from 22.3% (or 4.2 million) to 19.5 % (or 4.1 million). In population terms, the number of Canadians in these two top levels declined by a total of 100,000. This is troubling because a knowledge-based economy cannot afford to lose its most highly skilled workers.

In June 2008, CCL signalled the urgency of this situation by releasing a report entitled Reading the Future: Planning to Meet Canada’s Future Literacy Needs. The report projects that the number of adults with low literacy skills in Canada will reach 12 million by 2031. If this holds, then there will be an additional three million Canadians with low literacy skills by that time.[29] Clearly we must act now to address Canada’s literacy issues.

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What can be done to increase Canada’s literacy skills?

CCL has written extensively about ways governments, employers, unions, social institutions, educators, parents and learners can contribute to addressing Canada’s literacy challenges. In several Lessons in Learning and in three papers prepared for the National Strategy on Early Literacy, CCL has drawn attention to the specific literacy issues facing particular segments of the population, such as boys, Aboriginal students, rural students, and Canadians with disabilities. CCL’s  2007 report, State of Learning in Canada: Unlocking Canada’s Potential, highlights a number of ways to improve Canada’s literacy landscape. CCL has also encouraged individuals to take action.

One of the most important lessons taught by the IALS and the ALL is that each of us has a personal role to play in increasing literacy skills. As IALS concluded, “Literacy skills, like muscles, are maintained and strengthened through regular use.”[30] The lesson is that if you do not use your literacy skills, you will lose them.

If that happens, it might also affect your health. CCL's work on health literacy shows that the simple act of reading at home every day is associated with improved health-literacy scores: 38% higher for those aged 16 to 65, and 52% higher for those of 66 years and older.

Acquiring, increasing and maintaining personal literacy skills are important to individual success throughout life. Being or becoming a regular reader is an essential action everyone can take. In this regard, the most profound thing a person can do is to lead (i.e., read) by example.

This is especially so for families. Research shows that children brought up in a literate home environment with parents who read, do much better in life than children who are deprived of the benefits of literacy from an early age.[31]

Studies of mothers who interact with their children in the preschool years show that the quality and quantity of language to which children are exposed influences the rate of growth of their vocabularies, and their use of language structures. These studies also conclude that increasing the level of parents’ literacy skills can have long-term beneficial effects on children’s language development.[32]

By the time children reach school, differences in verbal and literacy skills begin to show among their peers. Studies show that this is the result of socialization, especially in the home.[33] Literate and well-educated parents and caregivers are usually better able to help build a strong foundation for literacy and learning in children.[34] Literate family settings can positively affect how well children learn at school. How well children learn can have an impact on what they do in later life.[35]

For these reasons, CCL has developed materials to help parents support their children’s literacy skills. For example, “How parents foster early literacy,”[36] featured in CCL’s Lessons in Learning series, contains tips for parents and caregivers.

How parents foster early literacy
  • Provide access to numerous books;
  • Read storybooks with a child;
  • Offer access to writing implements, paper and a writing surface;
  • Provide access to games that encourage alphabet knowledge and reading, such as magnetized alphabets and computer reading games;
  • Teach the alphabet, new words and how to write the child’s name;
  • Engage in regular, detailed and informative conversations with the child;
  • Expose children to adult reading activities, simply by having them see adults
    reading at home every day (books, magazines, online articles).

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Articles and reports addressing Canada’s literacy challenges

Lessons in Learning

Lessons in Learning Lessons in Learning is published to provide Canadians with independent information about 'what works' in learning. Read articles related to gender differences in reading achievement, improving literacy levels among Aboriginal Canadians, and the relationship between literacy and health.

National Strategy for Early Literacy:



Endnotes
[1] International Council for Adult Education, Agenda for the Future: Six Years Later, a presentation to CONFINTEA+6, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conference on adult education and literacy held in Bangkok Thailand, Sept. 8–11, 2003.

[2] Canadian Council on Learning, State of Learning in Canada: No Time for Complacency (Ottawa: January 2007), p. 86. Available at: www.ccl-cca.ca.

[3] Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), p. 14.

[4] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Literacy: Multiple Meanings and Dimensions, education-sector position paper (unpublished), pp. 2–3.

[5] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Literacy: Multiple Meanings and Dimensions, education-sector position paper (unpublished), p. 8.

[6] Juliet Merrifield, Contested Ground: Performance Accountability in Adult Basic Education, National Centre for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) Report #1, (accessed Jan. 14, 2009).

[7] Elsa Roberts Auerbach, “Toward a social-contextual approach to family literacy,” Harvard Educational Review 59, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 166.

[8] Juliet Merrifield, Contested Ground: Performance Accountability in Adult Basic Education, National Centre for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) Report #1, (accessed Jan. 14, 2009).

[9] Pat Campbell, editor, Measures of Success: Assessment and Accountability in Adult Basic Education (Edmonton: Grass Roots Press, 2007), pp. 5–6; Richard Darville, Adult Literacy Work in Canada (Toronto: Canadian Association for Adult Education, 1992), p. 16.; Kjell Rubenson, Richard Desjardins and Ee-Seul Yoon, Adult Learning in Canada: A Comparative Perspective: Results from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2007), Catalogue no. 81-552-MIE.

[10] Jo Balatti, Stephen Black and Ian Falk, “Teaching for social capital outcomes: the case of adult literacy and numeracy courses in VET,” Australian Journal of Adult Learning 47, no. 2 (July 2007): 245–263.

(accessed Jan. 1, 2009); Hal Beder, The Outcomes and Impacts of Adult Literacy Education in the United States, National Centre for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) Report #6, (accessed Jan.16, 2009); Tracey Westell, Measuring Non-academic Outcomes in Adult Literacy Programs: A Literature Review, (accessed Jan. 16, 2009).

[11] Canadian Council on Learning, State of Learning in Canada: No Time for Complacency (Ottawa: January 2007), p. 86.

[12] For a discussion of this point, see Colin Lankshear’s Introduction in Chris Holland, Fiona Frank and Tony Cooke, Literacy and the New Work Order (Leicester: National institute of Adult Continuing Education, 1998), pp. 1–8.

[13] Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), p. 58.

[14] Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), p. 60.

[15] Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), p. 62.

[16] Lars Osberg, Schooling, Literacy and Individual Earnings (Ottawa: Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), June 2000), Catalogue no. 89-552-MIE, no. 7. See also David A. Green and W. Craig Riddell, International Adult Literacy Survey: Literacy, Numeracy and Labour Market Outcomes in Canada (Ottawa: Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), January 2001), Catalogue no. 89-552-MIE, no. 8.

[17] Daniel Boothby, International Adult Literacy Survey: Literacy Skills, Occupational Assignment and the Returns to Over- and Under-Education (Ottawa: Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), January 2002), Catalogue no 89-552-MPE, no. 9.

[18] Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), p. 57.

[19] Canadian Council on Learning, State of Learning in Canada: No Time for Complacency (Ottawa: January 2007), p. 83.

[20] Stan Jones, Irwin Kirsch, Scott Murray and Albert Tuijnman, Literacy, Economy and Society: Results of the First International Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 1994). This report contains data on Canada, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland and the United States. Additional estimates for Northern Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland appear in Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997). Eleven additional countries were included in Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Literacy for the Information Age: Final Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 2000). A separate report on IALS data for Canada appears in Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), Reading the Future: A Portrait of Literacy in Canada (Ottawa: 1996).

[21] Richard Desjardins, Scott Murray, Yvan Clermont and Patrick Werquin, Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (Ottawa and Paris: Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2005), Catalogue no. 89-603-XWE.

[22] Statistics Canada and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), p. 14.

[23] The Canadian results were published in detail in Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRDC) and Statistics Canada, Building on Our Competencies: Canadian Results of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey 2003 (Ottawa: 2005), Catalogue no. 89-617-XIE.

[24] Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRDC) and Statistics Canada, Building on Our Competencies: Canadian Results of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey 2003 (Ottawa: 2005), Catalogue no. 89-617-XIE, p. 30 and Figure 1.3A on p. 31.

[25] Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRDC) and Statistics Canada, Building on Our Competencies: Canadian Results of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey 2003 (Ottawa: 2005), p. 13, Catalogue no. 89-617-XIE.

[26] Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Statistics Canada, Building on Our Competencies: Canadian Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey 2003 (Ottawa: 2005), p.13, Catalogue no. 89-617-XIE.

[27] Canadian Council on Learning, Health Literacy in Canada: A Healthy Understanding 2008 (Ottawa: 2008).

[28] Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada, Reading the Future: A Portrait of Literacy in Canada (Ottawa: 1996), Table 1.3 (rounded figures). More precise figures, see Stan Jones, Irwin Kirsch, Scott Murray and Albert Tuijnman, Literacy, Economy and Society: Results of the First International Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 1994), pp. 30 and 31 for prose literacy, 38 and 39 for document literacy and 44 for quantitative literacy figures.

[29] Canadian Council on Learning, Reading the Future: Planning to Meet Canada’s Future Literacy Needs (Ottawa: 2008).

[30] Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), p. 116.

[31] Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), pp. 61–62.

[32] Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), p. 62.

[33] Sandra Scarr and Richard A. Weisberg, “The influence of family background on intellectual attainment,” American Sociological Review 43 (October 1978): 674–692 and Torsten Husén and Albert Tuijnman, “The contribution of formal schooling to the increase in intellectual capital,” Educational Researcher 20 (October 1991): 17–25.

[34] Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (Ottawa and Paris: 1997), p. 29.

[35] For a general discussion of the relationship between parental skills and those of their children, see Robert Haveman and Barbara Wolfe, Succeeding Generations: On the Effects of Investments in Children (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1994).

[36] Canadian Council on Learning, “How parents foster early literacy,” Lessons in Learning (Ottawa: February 2006).

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