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Overview of the study

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) is a large-scale co-operative effort undertaken by governments, national statistics agencies, research institutions and multi-lateral agencies. The development and management of the study were co-ordinated by Statistics Canada and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in collaboration with the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the United States Department of Education, the Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC) and the Institute for Statistics (UIS) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The survey instruments were developed by international teams of experts with financing provided by the Governments of Canada and the United States. A highly diverse group of countries and experts drawn from around the globe participated in the validation of the instruments. Participating governments absorbed the costs of national data collection and a share of the international overheads associated with implementation.

The ALL study builds on the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), the world's first internationally comparative survey of adult skills undertaken in three rounds of data collection between 1994 and 1998. The foundation skills measured in the ALL survey include prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy, and problem solving. Additional skills assessed indirectly include familiarity with and use of information and communication technologies.

This volume presents general findings for the complete group of eleven countries or regions that collected ALL data between 2002 and 2008 in two main waves of collection. In this report, countries that participated in the first wave of collection in 2002 and 2003 will be referenced to 2003 in figures and tables. This includes Bermuda, Canada, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the United States and the Mexican State of Nuevo Leon. Similarly, the countries that participated in the second wave of collection between 2006 and 2008 will be referenced as 2008. These countries include Australia, Hungary, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

Definitions of skill

Like IALS the ALL defines skills along a continuum of proficiency. There is no arbitrary standard distinguishing adults who have or do not have skills. For example, many previous studies have distinguished between adults who are either "literate" or "illiterate". Instead, the ALL study conceptualizes proficiency along a continuum and this is used to denote how well adults use information to function in society and the economy.

Four skill domains are conceptualized in ALL. Two of them, namely prose and document literacy are defined and measured in the same manner as in IALS. Numeracy and problem solving are new domains. The conceptualization and definitions of the four skill domains as well as examples of test items used for the assessment are described in detail in Annex A. The operational definition for each skill domain is summarized here in Box 1.

Box 1
Four skill assessment domains in ALL

  • Prose literacy – the knowledge and skills needed to understand and use information from texts including editorials, news stories, brochures and instruction manuals.
  • Document literacy – the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various formats, including job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables and charts.
  • Numeracy – the knowledge and skills required to effectively manage the mathematical demands of diverse situations.
  • Problem solving – Problem solving involves goal-directed thinking and action in situations for which no routine solution procedure is available. The problem solver has a more or less well defined goal, but does not immediately know how to reach it. The incongruence of goals and admissible operators constitutes a problem. The understanding of the problem situation and its step-by-step transformation based on planning and reasoning, constitute the process of problem solving.

End of Box 1

Table I.1 Five levels of difficulty for the prose, document and numeracy domainsTable I.1 Five levels of difficulty for the prose, document and numeracy domains

Table I.2 Four levels of difficulty for the problem solving domainTable I.2 Four levels of difficulty for the problem solving domain

Measurement of skills

The ALL employed the same methodology as in IALS to measure skill proficiency. For each domain, proficiency is denoted on a scale ranging from 0 to 500 points. Each score denotes a point at which a person has an 80 per cent chance of successfully completing tasks that are associated with a similar level of difficulty. For the prose and document literacy domains as well as the numeracy domain, experts have defined five broad levels of difficulty, each corresponding to a range of scores. For the problem solving domain, experts have defined four broad levels of difficulty. See Tables I.1 and I.2 for a description of the levels. Also see Annex A for a more in depth presentation of each domain.

Data collection

The ALL assessment was administered in homes by experienced interviewers. The study design combined educational testing techniques with those of household survey research. Respondents were first asked a series of questions to obtain background information on a range of variables thought to influence the formation of skill and in turn impact on a range of educational, social and health outcomes. Annex B describes in more detail the survey design used for ALL, including details about survey methods, coverage, sample sizes and key indicators of quality.

Once this background questionnaire was completed the interviewer presented a booklet containing six simple tasks. If the respondent failed to complete two of these tasks correctly, the interview was adjourned. Respondents who completed two or more tasks correctly were then given a much larger variety of tasks drawn from a pool of 170 items, printed in one of eight test booklets. Test booklets were randomly assigned to respondents to ensure good representation of the domains of interest. The assessment was not timed and respondents were given maximum opportunity to demonstrate their skill proficiency.

Organization of the report

The main goal of this ALL report is to present initial findings on the level and distribution of skills, and the relationships between skills and important background variables. The findings are presented in 7 chapters.

Section Description
Chapter 1 presents a historical overview of the ALL study, including its most significant knowledge contributions in the adult literacy field, as well as some unresolved knowledge gaps and how the new Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) project might address some of those needs.
Chapter 2 compares the basic distributions of skill by country, age, gender, immigration and language status. The chapter also presents evidence on how rapidly skill profiles have changed over time for those countries where such analyses could be conducted1.
Chapter 3 explores the relationship between adult skills and valued economic and social outcomes namely; labour market participation, earnings premiums and participation in community groups and voluntary activities.
Chapter 4 focuses on numeracy skills, as defined by ALL, which is increasingly important to everyday life. The chapter explores the relationships between numeracy and key socio-demographic factors as well as labour market outcomes and earnings.
Chapter 5 highlights the importance of problem solving skills by first defining this foundational skill and comparing the country skill levels and distributions. The chapter also explores determinants of problem solving skill as well as its relative role in influencing important labour market outcomes.
Chapter 6 explores performance across multiple skill domains. The data analyses investigate the skill profiles of various population groups defined in terms of the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of those who score at levels deemed to be low in one or more skill domains. The chapter also explores the consequences of having poor skills in one or more skill domain.
Chapter 7 investigates the issue of skill mismatch in the labour market and its relationship to adult learning. The extent and distribution of mismatch between the day to day literacy related requirements of workers and the literacy skills they have obtained is an important issue that is being explored in this chapter.
Annex A provides a detailed overview of the ALL proficiency scales – how they are defined, how they were measured, how proficiency was summarized and how proficiency estimates should be interpreted. Readers requiring additional technical information on the psychometric aspects of the study are referred to The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey: Aspects of Design, Development and Validation (Statistics Canada, 2004), The International Adult Literacy Survey: A Technical Report (NCES, 1997) and The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey: A Technical Report (Statistics Canada, 2005).
Annex B documents key aspects of survey administration, response and data quality.
Annex C describes in very broad terms, the scaling and conditioning procedures used for the production of prose and document literacy, numeracy and problem solving scores in both IALS and ALL.
Annex D identifies the experts, researchers and analysts who were involved in developing the ALL instruments, in implementing the national data collections, and in the writing, analytical and editorial work that made publication of this report possible.


  1. Comparable prose literacy and document literacy scores are available from the 1994-1998 IALS study for Australia, Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the United States, the data sets thus allow for the analysis of changes in skill profiles over time.


NCES (1997), The International Adult Literacy Survey: A Technical Report, National Centre for Educational Statistics, Washington, D.C.

OECD and Statistics Canada (2005), Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, Ottawa and Paris.

Statistics Canada (2004), The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey: Aspects of Design, Development and Validation, Ottawa: Author.

Statistics Canada (2005), The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey: A Technical Report, Ottawa: Author.

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