Statistics Canada - Statistique Canada
Skip main navigation menuSkip secondary navigation menuHomeFrançaisContact UsHelpSearch the websiteCanada Site
The DailyCanadian StatisticsCommunity ProfilesProducts and servicesHome
CensusCanadian StatisticsCommunity ProfilesProducts and servicesOther links

Products and services : Downloadable Publications


The level of literacy in a society is a key social and economic indicator

by J. Douglas Willms Introduction

The level of literacy in a society is a key social and economic indicator. People with low levels of literacy are restricted in their access to certain labour markets, while those with high levels are more likely to obtain high-paying jobs. Employment projections for the next two decades predict a weak demand for low-skilled workers, and a growing demand for moderately-skilled technical and administrative workers and highly-skilled professionals. The unequal distribution of strong literacy skills in a society is therefore associated with economic and social inequalities. Improving literacy skills across social class lines, and between ethnic groups and the sexes, is of paramount importance to achieving greater equality of income and opportunity.

This study examines the level of literacy skills and inequalities in the distribution of literacy skills for young adults aged 16 to 25 in Canada and the United States. As such, it measures the success of school systems in developing literacy, and serves as a predictor of the future success and well-being of our youth.

Data and methods

The data for this study are derived from the 1989 U.S. National Adult Literacy Study (NALS) and the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). These surveys were designed to determine the level and distribution of literacy skills among the adult population and to identify factors relevant to developing literacy skills. Test results for both surveys are directly comparable. The literacy tests covered three domains of literacy: prose literacy – understanding and using information from written texts such as stories and editorials; document literacy – locating and using information from texts such as job applications, transportation schedules and maps; quantitative literacy – finding, understanding and using mathematical operations embedded in texts, such as weather charts found in the newspaper or the calculation of interest using a loan chart. This summary focuses on results for prose and quantitative literacy only, since patterns of document literacy are very similar to those for prose.

Scores were grouped into five levels ranging from simple literacy tasks (Level 1) to complex tasks (Level 5). Differences in literacy levels among groups or jurisdictions are expressed as fractions of a standard deviation and in terms of "years of schooling." In general, 15% of a standard deviation is roughly equivalent to one additional year of schooling. Two statistical techniques were used in this analysis: a simple linear regression to estimate the impact of various personal characteristics on literacy scores; and hierarchical linear models (HLM) to compare the relationships between literacy and socio-demographic characteristics between provinces and states.

Participants were also asked a number of socio-demographic questions such as labour force activity and their personal and family backgrounds.


Canadian youth rank in the middle of original seven participating countries, the United States almost last

Inequalities in the distribution of literacy skills of youth are considerably greater in some countries than others. When looking at the five European countries that participated in the surveys, it is apparent that the countries with the best results are those where literacy skills are more equitably distributed among youth with differing family backgrounds. In Sweden, for example, youth whose parents had only eight years of schooling scored about three years of formal schooling above the international average (prose test). On the other hand, Polish youth whose literacy skills are more strongly connected to their parents' education level, scored almost five years below the international average. This finding strongly suggests that European countries succeed in achieving high literacy scores for their youth populations because they instil strong literacy skills in their least advantaged youth.

When results from North America are added to the comparison, it can be seen that Canadian and American youth do not meet the literacy standards attained by most of their European counterparts. A typical Canadian youth, whose parents had completed high school, scored about the same on the prose and document tests as their counterparts in Germany and Switzerland, but considerably lower than those in Sweden and the Netherlands; on the quantitative test, Canadians were outscored by youth in all other European countries except Poland. Meanwhile, American youth whose parents had completed high school scored about two to three years of schooling lower than Canadians, meaning their skills rank significantly behind those of youths in all other participating countries except Poland.

Results for youth in Canada are generally better than in the United States

Using sophisticated statistical techniques that cut out the "noise" from other factors, it is possible to estimate the extent to which literacy inequalities between youths are caused by social-class (as measured by parents’ education), by sex differences, by immigrant status, and (in the United States) by ethnic group.

On average, Canadian youth scored roughly one year of schooling higher than the average American 16- to 25-year-old on all three measures of literacy – prose, document and quantitative. However, when the effect of family background is considered, the literacy results are about the same for both countries; that is, youths whose parents had at least 12 years of formal education consistently scored higher than youths from families with lower levels of educational attainment.

In Canada, young women scored about one year of schooling higher than young men on the prose test, and one year lower on the quantitative test. In the United States, young women also outperformed young men on the prose test but scored at the equivalent level on the quantitative test.

Also of interest is the impact of parental education on differences in test scores between the sexes. Among youth whose parents had high school or more, women scored considerably higher than men, while young men did better among youth whose parents had less than high school.

As one might expect, recent immigrant youth scored considerably lower on the literacy tests than those who were native-born. However, the inequality in skill levels declined as the number of years spent in the country increased. For young immigrants who had been in the country for more than 10 years, the differences between their literacy scores and those of non-immigrant youth were virtually non-existent in Canada, and less than six months’ schooling in the United States.

Of course, the "immigrant effect" may be due to lack of familiarity with the language in which the test was conducted (English or French). Although the ethnic origins of their immigrant populations are quite different, the effect of years speaking the language of the test are similar for Canada and the United States. The literacy gap of immigrant youth narrowed fairly quickly during their first five years of residence; nevertheless, after 10 years there remained a deficit of about two years of formal schooling between those youths who took the test in their mother tongue and those who did not.

U.S. literacy inequality very high for some visible minority youth

For the United States only, variables denoting ethnicity are available. Compared with the average white youth, Blacks, on average, scored four to five years of formal schooling lower on the three literacy tests; the gap for Hispanics ranged from one to two years and for Asians and Pacific Islanders less than one year. These large disparities are even greater than those observed in previous studies of Grade 10 or Grade 12 students. This finding suggests that the literacy inequalities between white and minority youth groups may stem not only from the quality of education available to minority youth, but also to generally fewer years of formal education they complete.

Literacy disparities between provinces and states mainly due to demographic characteristics

The level of literacy attained by youth varies considerably across different provinces and states. Prose test scores, for example, were lowest in California, New York and Texas (almost two years below average), while youth in Iowa, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta scored highest (almost two years above average). In other words, the difference between the three best and the three worst performing educational jurisdictions in North America is equivalent to more than three years of schooling.

Almost all (over 90%) of the inequality in literacy scores across provinces and states is attributable to differences between young people themselves; for example, over half of the variation among jurisdictions for prose scores was due to the demographic characteristics of their youth populations – that is, sex, parental education, immigrant status and (in the United States) ethnic origin. Most important was the difference between jurisdictions associated with parental education. Youth from advantaged backgrounds fared equally well regardless of their province or state of residence, but the scores of youth from less advantaged families varied considerably across the different jurisdictions. However, some substantial variations still cannot be explained by these factors.

Daily involvement in literacy activities reduces inequalities

Daily literacy activities have a considerable moderating effect on literacy inequalities. The inequalities associated with demographic characteristics were reduced by less than one to almost two years of schooling when engagement in literacy activities was taken into account. Of course, daily literacy activities reflect an individual’s literacy culture in their personal lives, and as one would expect, reading books or newspaper or writing letters on a regular basis have a positive effect. Youth who watch more hours of television have considerably weaker literacy skills than those who watch fewer hours (equivalent of as much as six months’ schooling).

Involvement in daily literacy activities may also explain some of the variation in literacy attainment among provinces and states, since people’s literacy behaviours (although affected by formal schooling experiences) are probably also shaped by the social, economic and cultural features of their society and local community. Indeed, youth from less advantaged backgrounds, minority youth and immigrant youth tend to be less engaged in daily literacy activities.


The success of societies is often gauged by economic indicators such as unemployment rates, average income or Gross Domestic Product. Recently, though, countries have become concerned about the academic success of their youth, and many have developed national testing programs to monitor the quality of their educational systems. But most of the indicators devised are insufficient, failing to describe the extent of inequalities between social classes, ethnic groups and the sexes.

The findings of this study show that inequalities in the literacy skills of youth are associated with the educational background of their parents. Moreover, these inequalities are considerably greater in some countries than in others. The United States, for example, shows larger disparities between more and less advantaged youths than Canada and most European countries. The substantial differences in literacy skills for youth from less advantaged backgrounds suggest that there are important differences in the quality of schooling offered in each country. This is especially worrisome with respect to economic development, because many of the jobs in the global high technology sector require an understanding of sophisticated mathematical models, computerized data analyses and elaborate accounting systems.

The study shows that demographic factors do not account for all of the variations in literacy skills between young people, and that inequalities among social class groups, and between minority and non-minority groups, are also important contributors.

The findings also intimate that there are social, economic and historical factors associated with the culture of a society that shape and constrain people’s behaviour. Thus, researchers need to acquire a better understanding of the features of societies that lead to greater equality. Although this study suggests that provincial and state schooling systems may contribute to literacy inequalities, it is likely that some of the inequalities described are entrenched in competition and conflict at the level of neighbourhoods, schools and communities.

To answer questions about why literacy inequalities persist or why some jurisdictions have better literacy outcomes than others, society needs to measure a child’s development upon entering school, and to collect information about aspects of schooling that may lead to inequalities, such as discipline, student-staff relations, homework practices and parental involvement. For accountability, measures of academic quality should emphasize progress towards fixed standards, rather than pitting schools against each other, and these measures should portray inequalities along social class lines, among ethnic groups and between the sexes.

Finally, society needs to answer the most important questions associated with literacy inequalities: When do the critical transitions occur as students progress through the school system? How are students directed into different types of programs? What is the learning climate in these programs? What leads to disaffection from school and literacy, rather than to a lifelong engagement in literacy activities?

This highlights paper is a summary from the sixth in a series of monographs using data from the International Adult Literacy Survey: Inequalities in Literacy Skills Among Youth in Canada and the United States, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 89-552-MPE, no. 6. For further information, please contact T. Scott Murray at (613)951-9035.

Home | Search | Contact Us | Français Return to top of page
Date Modified: 2001-04-17 Important Notices