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Skill gains and losses for Canada and the provinces

The overall levels of skill gain or loss by age for Canada are shown in Chart 2.  The chart shows the average relationship between document literacy scores and the age of the respondent for adults participating in the 1994 IALS and the 2003 ALL. The x-axis is scaled to include the "synthetic cohorts" of adults aged 16 to 65 in 1994 (IALS) and aged 25 to 74 in 2003. For example, adults who were born in 1954 were 40 years old in 1994, when IALS was conducted, and 49 years old in 2003 when ALL was conducted. For adults at this age, the ALL line is below the IALS line; the difference is 13.1 points, indicating a skill loss for 40-year old adults. Judged in educational terms, these are significant losses of skill, roughly equivalent to the average learning gain in literacy associated with an additional 3.5 months of schooling (Willms, 1999). [Full text of section]

Factors related to literacy skills and skill loss

We now expand the regression analysis in an attempt to achieve a more accurate estimate of skill loss, and possibly explain some of the observed loss. The argument is that the literacy skills of a cohort are related to people's demographic characteristics and their experiences at home and at work. We therefore introduce these factors into our model for document literacy skills such that our two cohorts are statistically comparable. This work builds on previously published analysis, which has revealed that skill loss is concentrated in adults from lower socio-economic backgrounds, a fact that raises concerns about the quality of tertiary education for these individuals and about their ability to compete in a labour market that rewards literacy skill to a high degree (Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2005). [Full text of section]

Secular changes in the factors affecting literacy scores

In a synthetic cohort study it is difficult to assess whether changes in literacy scores for a jurisdiction, such as a province or community, are related to specific policy initiatives. This is because the statistical power is not strong enough to disentangle effects associated with period and cohort effects at this level. As noted earlier, one needs prospective longitudinal studies, and local monitoring systems that collect data that is sensitive to interventions. However, the ALL data can provide a general indication as to what factors are changing in the right direction. The analyses above suggested that while a person's age and gender play a role, their participation in the labour market, their level of educational attainment, their participation in further education and training, and their engagement in literacy activities at work and at home are all related to their literacy skills. [Full text of section]

Summary and implications

Young children differ substantially in their language and literacy skills when they enter school at age 5, in large measure due to their exposure to language and their interactions with parents and siblings (Hart and Risley, 1995). During the primary school years, the rate of acquiring literacy skills continues to vary considerably. Family experiences continue to play a prominent role, but the quality of schooling contributes also. The transition from "learning-to-read' to "reading-to-learn", which for most children should occur during the second or third grade, is critical, as children who fail to make this transition tend to be poor readers throughout their school career, and are prone to leaving secondary school before graduating. Different groups of people leave the educational system at different points, and have much different skill levels. [Full text of section]