Learning Literacy in Canada: Evidence from the International Survey of Reading Skills

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by S. Grenier , S. Jones, J. Strucker, T.S. Murray, G. Gervais and S. Brink

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Canada's future economic prosperity depends on success in trade in an increasingly global knowledge economy. Hence Canadians, and the policy makers serving them, have a vested interest in understanding the factors that might boost individual and collective competitiveness. Canada also is a country committed to equal opportunity, one in which all citizens have fair and equal access to the benefits the country can provide. Thus, Canadians have a vested interest in understanding the causes and consequences of social inequality, including inequality that stems from differences in how well individuals can read.

Literacy – the ability to access and apply information gleaned from the printed word – is known from research studies to enable individual access to social and economic systems, and to play a key role in overall development. The level and distribution of adult literacy in the population influence long term economic growth and are associated with large differences in employment, wages, health, access to learning opportunities, and participation in broader society. Canada's level of adult literacy is comparatively high yet many citizens fail to reach the threshold level of skill required to contribute fully.

Many observers have called for public investment to increase the stock of literacy skill available to the economy and to help contain rising social inequality. If one accepts, for the sake of argument, that additional investment is needed to raise Canada's adult skill levels, and further that this should be publicly financed, then one must decide how much new investment is warranted, what types of programs are needed to serve adults with what types of reading challenges, where these programs would be best provided, and how best to motivate adults to participate.

Ironically, little is known about the learning needs of Canadians with low literacy skills. National literacy surveys have identified the main characteristics of persons likely to have low skills, where they live, and how low skill influences their quality of life. Helpful though this information is, these surveys were not designed to define the programs and types of instruction that might assist adults in improving their skills.

The evidence presented in this initial report from the International Survey of Reading Skills, a study designed jointly with institutions in the United States, fills several gaps in what is known about the learning needs of Canadians with low literacy skills – a basis for judging whether, where and how much public investment is warranted, and for educators to develop more effective remedial programs.

T. Scott Murray
Satya Brink

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