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Building on Our Competencies: Canadian Results of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey

Content note: The complete version of this report in HTML format is still being prepared, and will be published early in 2006. At this moment, full content is available in PDF only. Please note that many references in this HTML preview ("Chapter 1", "Annex C" and so on) refer strictly to the current contents of the PDF version of this publication.

Of learning as of virtue, it may be affirmed, that it is at once honoured and neglected. (Samuel Johnson, 1760)

This report presents new information on the level and distribution of literacy performance for all Canadian provinces and territories. The 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey did not merely ask respondents about their education or self-assessed literacy proficiency, but actually measured their performance against an international standard, and linked this to economic and social outcomes.

The results document the powerful influence literacy exerts on people's life chances and quality of life. Even though Canadians are better educated and their living environments more literacy rich than ever before, many adults nevertheless experience a literacy challenge in everyday life. Paradoxically, the improvements achieved in the quality of schooling and in the level of educational attainment of the population have not diminished but reinforced the concern with literacy. This is because literacy demands are not static but evolve with social and economic change. Literacy requirements in Canadian workplaces have increased over time, by some measures dramatically so. In addition to the abilities normally associated with literacy - mainly reading and writing - people today also require higher-order analytical skills, numeracy and technological and computer literacy.

In addition to the literacy profiles of Canadians, this report presents, for the first time, a comparative analysis of the population distribution of numeracy and problem solving abilities, ranging from elementary to advanced levels of complexity. It also shows how these abilities are related to the use of computers and other information and communication technologies in Canadian society. Because the 2003 literacy scores are directly comparable to those from the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey, the report allows the reader to understand how the level of literacy in Canada has changed over the past decade.

Contrary to expectation, the report finds little improvement in literacy proficiency since 1994. The new survey shows almost nine million Canadians aged 16 to 65 (12 million if Canadians over 65 are included) score below the desirable threshold of prose literacy performance. This average result masks the fact that there are significant differences between the provinces and territories in the proportions of the population with low literacy, numeracy and problem solving scores. The new literacy data will be used extensively in further studies to understand these differences and, particularly, why literacy in Canada has not improved as much as expected.

This information is invaluable for policy makers, service providers and literacy professionals in making good decisions and creating the conditions that foster high rates of adult learning. This is significant because of the importance of literacy for economic development and social cohesion. Moreover, the Government of Canada has stated that raising literacy and numeracy is a priority. Results from this survey will provide evidence to formulate policies that will ensure that Canadians are well equipped to face the future.

Neil Bouwer
Director General
Learning Policy Directorate
Strategic Policy and Planning
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

Sange de Silva
Social and Institutional Statistics
Center for Education Statistics
Statistics Canada

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Date modified: 2005-11-30 Important Notices
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