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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey


The challenge to improve literacy performance among Canadians is far from over, according to the first round of a major new survey that measured literacy skills among individuals aged 16 to 65 in Canada and six other countries in 2003.

As in 1994, a significant number of Canadian adults had low-level literacy skills which may have had an impact on their participation in society and in the economy.

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey tested more than 23,000 Canadians in 2003 on their skills proficiency in four scales: prose, document, numeracy and problem-solving. Skills were rated on the basis of levels one to five, that is, lowest to highest. This report presents an initial set of findings covering Canada, Bermuda, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the United States and the Mexican State of Nuevo Leon.

It found that the average literacy score for Canadians had not changed significantly during the nine-year period since the last major survey was conducted in 1994.

However, there was a noticeable positive change in average scores among the 5% of adults with the lowest literacy scores. Overall, the survey found a slight decline in the inequality gap between adults with the lowest literacy levels, and those with the highest.

In Canada, about 58% of adults aged 16 to 65 possessed skills in the top three literacy levels on the prose scale, indicating that they could meet most everyday reading requirements.

Note to readers

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) study is a joint project of the Government of Canada, the US National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The ALL survey builds on the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), the world's first internationally comparative survey of adult skills. IALS was undertaken in three rounds of data collection between 1994 and 1998. This new study presents the international results of the first round of data collection in the ALL survey. A Canadian National report that will present provincial results and specific national findings will be released in the Fall of 2005.

Participating countries were responsible for domestic implementation, adherence to international standards and guidelines, domestic analysis and dissemination. They also contributed financially to offset costs of implementing the study at the international level.

As the international coordinator of the project, Statistics Canada was responsible for overall management and quality assurance and, in co-operation with the OECD and various other international organizations, for analysis and dissemination of the study findings at the international level.

The ALL survey measured skills in four domains. Two of them, prose (continuous text such as the type found in books and newspaper articles) and document literacy (such as graphs, charts and other written information of a discontinuous nature), were defined and measured in the same manner as in the IALS survey.

The ALL survey added two new domains. The first was numeracy, which expanded the quantitative measure of the 1994 IALS by adding mathematical concepts and, in some instances, removing the textual aspect of the measure. The second was problem-solving, or analytical reasoning.

Skills were rated on a continuous scale from 0 to 500 points and were reported on the basis of five cognitive levels. Due to a lack of respondents scoring at level 5, levels 4 and 5 appear together for the prose, document and numeracy scale. The new problem-solving domain has four theoretical levels, so the regrouping was not required.

In all four domains, level one contains respondents displaying the lowest level of ability, while level 4/5 (or level 4 for problem solving) contains those with the highest level of ability.

This result was in line with the findings of the International Adult Literacy Survey conducted in 1994. The two surveys employed the same general methodology. The prose scale tested the ability of participants to understand and use information contained in various types of written material.

At the same time, some 15% of Canadians, about one out of every seven, scored in level one, the lowest performance level. This was down slightly from 17% in 1994. Regardless of the statistical significance associated with this drop, it still means that a large number of adults, well over three million Canadians aged 16 to 65, have problems dealing with printed materials and most likely identify themselves as people who have difficulty reading.

Among the countries that chose to participate in the 2003 survey, Canada ranked roughly in the middle. On the prose scale, residents of only two countries (Norway and Bermuda) performed better than Canada. Adults in the United States performed slightly less well than Canadians on all scales. Norway performed highest on all four scales. The importance of literacy and other skills are demonstrated when we notice that, in all participating countries, the study found a significant wage return for higher skill levels.

In Canada, the survey also showed that in general young people perform better than older Canadians. However, after their parents' education was taken into account, the survey seemed to show an apparent decline in literacy scores among young people aged 16 to 25 between 1994 and 2003. This is particularly evident among young people whose parents had low levels of education.

Canada in the middle of the pack

Results from the 2003 survey confirmed findings from the earlier IALS that many adults have difficulty coping with the unfamiliar literacy and numeracy demands of modern life and work. Although relative proportions varied, there were significant numbers of adults with low skills in all nations surveyed.

Depending on the country, between one-third and two-thirds of adult populations did not attain the third of five skill levels. This is considered by many experts as a suitable minimum level for coping with the increasing demands of our knowledge society and information economy.

In general, the average performance of Canadian adults was in the middle of the pack on all four scales. In the prose scale, Canadians were third behind Norway and Bermuda; in document comprehension (reading graphs and charts), second only to Norway; in numeracy, third behind Switzerland and Norway; and in problem-solving, third behind Norway and Switzerland.

Norway was the only country to have 60% or more of its adult population performing at the three highest levels on each of the prose, document and numeracy scales. In contrast, about 58% of Canadians performed at these levels on the prose and document scales, and only 50% of Canadians reached level 3 on the numeracy scale.

Both Canadians and Americans performed relatively better in prose and document skills than they did in numeracy. The numeracy scale encompassed a broad range of mathematical problems, from simple counting to integrating multiple types of mathematical information.

Good literacy skills pay off

Literacy skills had a large impact on earnings in all participating countries. However, the extent to which economic rewards were attributable to either skill or education was mixed, and it varied from country to country.

In Bermuda and Italy, the returns to literacy skills overshadowed the impact of education. After accounting for individual skills, wage returns to education were either zero or negative. This suggests that adults with additional years of schooling who do not display a commensurate level of skill are not rewarded for their additional schooling in the labour market.

In Canada and the United States, it appeared that the labour market rewarded both the skills measured in the ALL survey and additional schooling separately.

Finally, in Norway, the findings indicated that both education and skills are valued, but there was a higher relative return accruing to skills. In fact, the labour market returns to numeracy skills overshadowed the return to education. Hence, if well-educated adults were lacking in numeracy skills, they derived no benefit from any additional years of schooling

In all participating countries (except Bermuda where unemployment is virtually non-existent), among adults who experience unemployment, those who score at higher levels on the document literacy scale had a higher likelihood of re-entering employment sooner.

For example, after 16 weeks of unemployment, people who scored at Levels 3 and Levels 4/5, that is, the highest levels, had a 60% chance of exiting unemployment. This increased to 70% after 48 weeks of unemployment.

In contrast, adults who scored at the lowest levels, 1 and 2, only had a 50% chance of finding a job, even after 52 weeks of unemployment. The results were similar for all the skill domains measured in the ALL survey.

Apparent decline in literacy scores among Canadian youth

The 2003 survey found that the parents' level of education had a significant impact on the literacy scores of their children. This was true in all countries, and the study show that it has significant implications for the skills distribution of youth everywhere.

In Canada, young people whose parents had completed 12 years of schooling scored 24 points higher than young people whose parents only completed eight years. In contrast, the difference was only 13 points in Norway, which was most successful at reducing the disadvantages in skills typically associated with low levels of parental education.

It should be noted that not all young people whose parents had low levels of education had low literacy scores. In some countries, there were many youth who scored at the highest levels of literacy despite their parents' relatively low levels of education. This was especially the case in Canada and Norway.

At the same time, survey results suggest that Canadian youth aged 16 to 25 who had parents with little or no education scored lower on average in 2003 than similar youth in 1994. Nevertheless, since there are fewer youth with low educated parents today than there were nine years ago, the overall performance of youth in Canada as a whole is relatively stable.

In contrast, in Norway and the United States, there was little change in the performance of young people during the nine-year period regardless of parental education. Norway had the least inequality in literacy skills among young people with different parental backgrounds, while the United States had the largest.

Literacy gap between technology users and non-users

In general, literacy is becoming increasingly important as more information is transmitted and shared through information and communications technologies than ever before.

The 2003 survey found that people who use computers consistently scored higher on average on the prose literacy scale than those who didn't. This "literacy gap" occurred in all seven nations.

The distribution of different profiles in literacy and computer use differs from nation to nation. For example, in Italy, Switzerland and the United States, the largest group is comprised of adults with a combined profile of low literacy and low-intensity computer use.

Conversely, in Canada, Norway and Bermuda, the largest group consists of users with medium to high literacy skills and low-intensity computer use.

The smallest group in all countries except Italy consists of individuals with high computer use and low literacy skills.

The survey also found that individuals with combined high literacy skills and computer use were more likely to have high earnings.

In Canada, respondents who had medium to high literacy skills, and who were high-intensity computer users, were five times more likely to be in the top 25% of personal income earners than respondents who had low literacy levels and used computers infrequently.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey number 4406.

The report Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, 2003 (89-603-XWE, free) is now available online. From the Our products and services page, under Browse our Internet publications, choose Free, then Education.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Client Services (1-800-307-3382; 613-951-7608; fax: 613-951-9040;, Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics.

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Date Modified: 2005-05-11 Important Notices