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Literacy skills among Canada's immigrant population

The International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey
Skill proficiencies of the immigrant population
Literacy skills, age and education
Literacy skills and language

Immigration has long been integral to Canada's social, cultural and economic development. With time, both the character of immigration and its role in Canadian society have changed to reflect new domestic and global realities.

Immigrants today account for a large and increasing proportion of labour force growth in Canada. In fact, immigrants who arrived during the 1990s accounted for about 70 percent of net labour force growth between 1991 and 2001 – a proportion set to increase to 100 percent over the next decade, a result in part of low rates of natural increase in the Canadian-born population.

Data from the 2001 Census show that between 1991 and 2000 alone, 2.2 million immigrants were admitted to Canada, the highest number for any decade in the past century. In contrast, 1.3 million immigrants came in the 1980s and 1.4 million in each of the 1970s and 1960s. The majority of the immigrants who arrived in Canada during the 1990s were in the working ages of 25 to 64 years and increased the size of Canada's working age population by more than 1.1 million.1

Immigrants arriving in Canada in recent years are more educated than were immigrants who arrived in the past and are twice as likely as the Canadian-born population to have a university education.2 However, the evidence shows that despite having high levels of education, the economic performance of immigrants relative to the Canadian-born population has deteriorated. Many immigrants find it difficult to secure well-paying jobs and their earnings tend to be well below those of the Canadian-born population.3 These trends raise questions about the factors that can explain diminished economic returns for immigrants.

Other important shifts have taken place in the characteristics of new immigrants. One of those changes has been a shift in the countries from which many new immigrants to Canada come, from countries where English or French are regularly spoken to countries where other languages predominate. New immigrants are much less likely to speak English or French as their mother tongue than previous immigrants and large numbers have completed their schooling in their home countries, often in a language other than English or French.

While data on the characteristics of recent immigrants and their economic performance in Canada have been collected and analyzed extensively, no comprehensive data on the literacy level of recent immigrants have been previously available. The 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) collected data from large enough samples of recent and established immigrants to answer key questions about the literacy levels of these two groups. The report on the Canadian results of IALSS, Building on Our Competencies,4 published in November 2005, presents an analysis of skill levels for three groups of individuals - the Canadian-born, recent immigrants (those who have been in Canada for 10 years or less) and established immigrants (those who have been in Canada for more than 10 years).

The International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey

Conducted in 2003, the IALSS is the Canadian component of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills program (ALL). The ALL program is a "… large-scale co-operative effort undertaken by governments, national statistical agencies, research institutions and multi-lateral agencies" that provides internationally comparable measures in four domains: prose and document literacy, numeracy and problem solving.5 Over 23,000 individuals aged 16 and over from across the ten provinces and three territories responded to the Canadian IALSS.

Literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills are essential to function in today's world. Proficiency in these domains enhances the capacity of individuals to participate in lifelong learning. In a global economy, a highly skilled population is an asset and fundamental to economic growth. Factors such as globalization, the impact of new technologies and the move to a knowledge economy have led the occupational composition in Canada to shift towards more highly skilled occupations requiring higher levels of education. A knowledge economy requires workers who can adapt quickly to the changing skill requirements of the labour market. Furthermore, differences in the level and distribution of skill have been found to be associated with large differences in outcomes in multiple facets of life - work, education, home and the community.

To understand the meaning of an individual's scores in the domains tested by IALSS, it is important to define a minimum level of competence that is needed for an individual to cope with the increasing skill demands of a knowledge- and information-based economy and society. Scores in each domain (prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy and problem solving) were grouped into proficiency levels representing a set of tasks of increasing difficulty In all domains, Level 1 contains respondents displaying the lowest level of ability. Level 4/5 (or Level 4 for problem solving) contains those with the highest level of ability. For the literacy and numeracy domains, Level 3 performance is chosen as the benchmark because performance at or above that level is generally associated with a number of positive outcomes. These include increased civic participation, increased economic success and independence, and enhanced opportunities for lifelong learning. In countries like Canada, individuals at proficiency Levels 1 and 2 typically have not yet mastered the minimum foundation of literacy skills needed to perform tasks generally viewed to be important for full participation in social and economic life.

Skill proficiencies of the immigrant population

Immigrants aged 16 to 65 performed significantly below the average for the Canadian- born population in all four domains. The average prose literacy score for the Canadian-born population corresponded to Level 3 proficiency, while for recent immigrants the average score was at Level 2. Differences in performance between Canadian-born and recent as well as established immigrants were largest for prose literacy and smallest for numeracy.

Perhaps contrary to expectation, duration of residence in Canada appeared to have no significant impact on the average performance of immigrants in any of the four domains. This may be because counteracting influences are at work. For example, it might be expected that immigrants will perform better the longer they have been in Canada. However, we know that recent immigrants are generally better educated than established immigrants and so, literacy levels may be higher for them despite the short time they have been in Canada. Additional analysis is needed to better understand the lack of impact length of residence appears to have on proficiency in the four domains.

In all four domains, a higher percentage of both recent and established immigrants performed at Levels 1 and 2 than did the Canadian-born population. Sixty percent of recent and established immigrants, compared to 37 percent of the Canadian-born population, were at Levels 1 and 2 in prose literacy.

At the other end of the proficiency scale, twelve percent of established and eight percent of recent immigrants performed at Level 4/5. This compares to 22 percent of the Canadian-born population - indicating that the differences between Canadian-born and immigrants were larger than they were between the two immigrant groups.

The analysis of the IALSS also examined the distribution of prose literacy scores for immigrant and Canadian-born males and females. Thirty-four percent of recent female immigrants scored at Level 1; this compares to nine percent for Canadian-born females. Similarly, a smaller proportion of recent-immigrant females attained the highest levels of literacy, with only seven percent at Level 4/5 compared to 25 percent of Canadian-born women. Similarly, some 28 percent of recent male immigrants performed at Level 1 literacy, a proportion more than double that of Canadian-born men. About 9 percent of recent immigrant males compared to 19 percent of Canadian-born men scored at Levels 4/5.

Literacy skills, age and education

The 2003 IALSS data allow an examination of the relationship between age and prose literacy for each of the three populations: recent immigrants, established immigrants and Canadian-born individuals. Across all age groups, there were higher proportions of recent and established immigrants at Level 1 proficiency than there were Canadian-born. The difference in the proportions at Level 1 prose literacy was most pronounced for recent immigrants, but the proportion of established immigrants at Level 1 was also at least double that of the Canadian-born in each age group.

In prose literacy, younger age cohorts generally performed at a higher level than older cohorts for both immigrant groups and for the Canadian-born population. The difference in prose literacy performance between the younger and older cohorts was more pronounced for established immigrants than for recent immigrants. One possible explanation for this difference is that young people among the established-immigrant population were likely to have pursued more of their education within Canada than would be the case for either older established immigrants or for young people within the recent-immigrant group.

There were large differences in literacy performance between immigrants and the Canadian-born with the same level of educational attainment. About two percent of the university-educated Canadian-born scored at Level 1 in prose literacy proficiency. In comparison, 14 percent of university-educated established immigrants and 18 percent of recent immigrants scored at this level. At the other end of the scale, 37 percent of university-educated Canadian-born scored at Levels 4/5 compared to 21 percent of university-educated established immigrants and 11 percent of university-educated recent immigrants.

Comparing those at the lowest level of prose literacy (Level 1), the Canadian-born and established immigrants both reported lower levels of educational attainment than recent immigrants. At Level 1 proficiency, 59 percent of the Canadian-born, 46 percent of established immigrants and 26 percent of recent immigrants had less than high school education.

Given the higher educational attainment of recent immigrants, it might be expected that many of them would have higher literacy proficiency in their mother tongue. More research is needed to determine the extent to which the relatively poor literacy performance of recent immigrants reflects a lack of proficiency in English or French, rather than low literacy in their mother tongue.

Literacy skills and language

In 2003, one in ten immigrants spoke English or French as their mother tongue, compared to almost one in three in 1980.6 Respondents to the IALSS tests in Canada had a choice between taking the test in either English or French. A key question, then, is whether speaking a language other than English or French as a mother tongue is associated with literacy performance. While the number of immigrants surveyed does not allow an analysis of recent and established immigrants separately with respect to individual languages, it is possible to examine all immigrant groups together in order to examine the impact of mother tongue on literacy scores.

The results showed that immigrants whose mother tongue was different than the test language had lower average scores in all four domains than did immigrants whose mother tongue was the same as the test language. As shown in Figure 1, about 43 percent of immigrants whose mother tongue was different than the test language scored at the lowest level on the prose literacy scale. This was about twice the proportion of immigrants whose mother tongue was the same as the test language (21 percent) and almost three times that of the Canadian-born population (15 percent). In contrast, about 30 percent of immigrants with a mother tongue that was different than the test language performed at or above Level 3 in prose literacy compared to 47 percent of immigrants whose mother tongue was the same as the test language and 57 percent of the Canadian-born.

Figure 1. Distribution of prose proficiency levels, by immigrant status and mother tongue, Canada, population aged 16 to 65, 2003

Figure 1. Distribution of prose proficiency levels, by immigrant status and mother tongue, Canada, population aged 16 to 65, 2003
Source: International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey , 2003.

It is important to note that low literacy scores in the test language in IALSS do not necessarily reflect low literacy in the respondent's mother tongue. More research is needed to learn how mother tongue and official language acquisition affect literacy performance in Canada's two official languages.


The 2001 Census reported that a growing proportion of Canada's newest immigrants speak a language other than English or French most often at home. In 2001, 61% of the immigrants who came in the 1990s used a non-official language as their primary home language. In comparison, 56% of the immigrants who arrived in the 1980s spoke a non-official language at home in 1991.

The IALSS results show that proficiency of Canadians aged 16 to 65 in literacy, numeracy and problem solving is clearly linked to their labour market outcomes. The average proficiency scores of employed individuals are higher than the scores of those who are either unemployed or not in the labour force; employment rates are also higher for those with higher proficiency levels. Individuals who work in more knowledge-intensive jobs tend to have higher literacy and numeracy proficiencies. In addition, higher proficiency is associated with higher earnings, especially in the case of women. These findings highlight the importance of building and maintaining human capital among Canadians of working age.

The ability to use and understand information is fundamental to daily life at work, at home, and in the community. Given the size of the immigrant population in Canada and its large and growing contribution to labour force growth, the link between language and literacy identified by the IALSS and the finding that immigrants tended to perform at lower proficiency than the Canadian-born population is cause for concern. This is especially the case because immigration will account for all of the net labour force growth in the coming years. This highlights the need to further advance our understanding of the interactions between language, literacy, skills and economic growth.


  1. Canada's ethnocultural portrait: The changing mosaic. 2001 Census: analysis series. 2003. Statistics Canada catalogue number 96F0030XIE2001008.

  2. Education in Canada: Raising the standard. 2001 Census: analysis series. 2003. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 96F0030XIE2001012.

  3. Garnett Picott and Arthur Sweetman. 2005. The Deteriorating Economic Welfare of Immigrants and Possible Causes: Update 2005. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 11F0019MIE – Number 262.

  4. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Statistics Canada. 2003. Building on Our Competencies: Canadian Results of the Interntional Adult Literacy and Skills Survey. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 89-617-XWE.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (2004), Facts and figures 2004. Ottawa: Strategic Research and Evaluation, Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

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