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International Survey of Reading Skills

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The Daily

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Canada has very few people who exhibit a really limited capacity in reading skills, according to a new follow-up study to an international literacy survey.

The study suggests that the approach to improving reading levels for people with the lowest proficiency will likely have to vary from individual to individual. That is because their specific reading skills differ widely and thus, the teaching methods will vary according to learners' needs.

The study was based on results from the International Study of Reading Skills (ISRS), conducted in 2005. It was a follow-up survey of the Canadian component of the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (IALLS) that measured literacy skills among individuals aged 16 to 65 in Canada and six other countries.

The ISRS reassessed about 2,000 Canadians from all literacy level but focused on those whose literacy scores in the IALSS fell into levels 1 or 2, the lowest of five. Level 3 is considered the desired threshold needed by adults to participate fully in the knowledge economy.

The purpose of the ISRS was to describe in greater detail the reading abilities of the least-skilled adult readers in society to better understand their instructional needs.

The 2003 international survey found that about 9 million Canadians aged 16 to 65, or 42% of the working-age population, scored below Level 3 on the prose literacy scale. This proportion had not changed since 1994.

Differences in literacy performance between individuals and regional economies are a concern for Canada because they constrain our ability to compete with nations in which the level of literacy skill is rising rapidly.

Only a handful of people had really limited reading abilities

The ISRS measured four reading-related skills: word recognition, vocabulary, listening comprehension and general reading processing skills, which were assessed in the language of choice of each participant (English or French).

These individuals were classified into four groups or classes, from the lowest, class A, to the highest, class D, based on their performance on the reading components.

The survey found that only a few people had really limited reading abilities because of the low numbers in classes A and B.

People in class A did not perform well in any of the reading components. This group had moderate vocabulary, but had not acquired the decoding ability necessary for developing literacy proficiency. This group represented only 4% of English test participants and 2% of the French.

Note to readers

The International Survey of Reading Skills (ISRS) is a follow-up survey of the Canadian component of the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (IALSS).

The IALSS established that about 9 million Canadians of working age, or 42% of those aged 16 to 65, scored below Level 3 on the prose literacy scale. Level 3 is the desired threshold for coping with the rapidly changing skill demands of a knowledge-based economy and society.

More specifically, in 2003, nearly 3.1 million Canadians aged 16 to 65 were at proficiency Level 1 on the prose literacy scale (below middle school skills), while another 5.8 million were at Level 2 (below high school skills). The new ISRS re-tested about 2,000 of these adults, most of whom had low proficiency in literacy.

The objectives of the ISRS were, first, to provide national population estimates (excluding territories) of specific reading component skills among adults 16 to 65 with low literacy level and to compare them with adults with greater literacy levels; second, to identify the relationship between specific reading skills and general reading ability as well as other adult characteristics; and third, to identify sub-groups based on patterns of performance on reading activities.

To attain these study objectives, the ISRS measured performance on four reading component skills: word recognition, vocabulary, listening comprehension, and general reading processing skills and examined the relationship of these specific skills to general reading ability represented by prose and document literacy.

People in class B also did not perform well on the components. In contrast to class A, this group had low average vocabulary skills, and moderate decoding skills. The key characteristics of this class were some control of decoding, but a lack of language knowledge to allow those skills to be used effectively. They accounted for only 3% of the participants in each language.

People in class C performed better on the components. They had higher vocabulary scores than the first two groups but only moderate decoding skills. Moreover, readers in this class were much less likely to engage in regular reading than more skilled adults; this lack of experience provided fewer opportunities to develop vocabulary and enhance decoding skills. This group represented 16% of English participants and 13% of French.

Finally, people in class D, performed well on all components. These individuals had the highest levels of education and the greatest engagement with literacy. This class had the decoding skills to make use of the strong language knowledge its members possess. It included those with high vocabulary and high decoding skill. They accounted for 77% of English participants and 82% of the French.

People who had not mastered reading components were at lowest literacy level

The relationship between performance on the reading components and literacy levels revealed two notable findings.

First, most individuals in classes A and B were in the lowest level of the literacy proficiency scale established by IALSS. To achieve an adequate level of literacy, these two groups would need help with their basic reading component skills.

In contrast, the majority of those who were at level 2 on the IALSS literacy scale, a level below the desired literacy threshold, had adequate reading component skills and belong to Class D.

Hence, it is possible to conclude that the components play an enabling role. Without command of them, it is almost impossible to achieve high levels of literacy.

However, someone who does have control over the components may not perform the literacy tasks as well as they could due to other reading limitations, namely a lack of reading strategies.

Demographic characteristics of individuals in lowest levels

In 2003, the International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey provided a statistical profile of Canadians with low proficiency levels in literacy based on key demographic and economic characteristics.

For example, one-half of the individuals who scored at Level 1 on the prose scale, the lowest level, had not finished high school. About 45% of those scoring at level 1 had immigrated to Canada, and 43% had a mother tongue other than English or French.

The new ISRS also examined some of these demographic characteristics among individuals in each class.

For example, a large proportion of those who scored in the lowest class had low levels of education. However, the report points out that many adults have managed to complete their secondary schooling despite reading difficulties. This will likely affect their future learning paths as well as their daily functioning in society.

Also, a significant proportion of adults in class B were people whose first language was neither English nor French. The report pointed out that programs currently on offer are often ill suited to empower these people to increase their performance and to enable them to work and earn at their potential, given their levels of education.

Results showed a relationship between mother tongue and proficiency scores. Among those who took the tests in English, there were large proportions of people in the lowest class for whom English was not their native language. The majority of these people were immigrants.

Even though older Canadians tend to have lower literacy scores, there were typically fewer young adults in the two lowest classes than would be expected from their proportion in the total population. This may have been because of the large number of immigrants who tend to come to Canada at an older age.

There were also differences in income levels among people in the four classes. In general, individuals who had the highest scores, in class D, reported earnings of more than $25,000 a year. This was true for both English and French test groups. In the two lowest groups, the majority of the individuals in both language groups reported earnings of less than $25,000 a year.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey number 5070.

The report "Learning literacy in Canada: Evidence from the International Survey of Reading Skills" (89-552-MWE2008019, free) is now available from the Publications module of our website as part of the International Adult Literacy Survey series.

To obtain more information, to order data, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Client Services (toll-free 1-800-307-3382; 613-951-7608; fax: 613-951-4441;, Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics.