Defining Literacy

According to the Manitoba Literacy and Continuing Education Branch (April, 1990), it is important to be aware of the following important points when reading and interpreting statistics on literacy:

  • Definitions of literacy vary and change over the years;
  • Grade completion figures are misleading;
  • Surveys are not necessarily representative of the total population in Manitoba and/or Canada;
  • The majority of adults surveyed have not been totally illiterate;
  • Literacy is self defined;
  • There are misconceptions about adults with literacy needs.

The following is just a sample of the many definitions of literacy/illiteracy which you may encounter:

"Traditionally, the number of completed grades of school has been used as an indicator of level of literacy. (Individuals with less than Grade 5 were classified as ?basically illiterate'; those with more than Grade 5, but less than Grade 9, were classified as ?functionally illiterate'.) ...Most literacy advocates now believe that grade levels are an unreliable measure of individual literacy. Many people with limited formal education are literate, while a significant number of people with high school and even post-secondary education have problems with everyday reading and writing." (NAPO, 1992: p.15)

Literacy means the "information processing skills necessary to use the printed material commonly encountered at work, at home, and in the community." (Statistics Canada, 1991: p.15)

"[Rather than focussing on levels of reading and writing]...the real issue is whether people possess the education and skills necessary to function fully and productively in the life of their society.... In the context of Canadian society, literacy means a relatively high level of reading, writing and calculating ability." (Pike, 1991: p.4)

"Illiteracy is best defined as a lack of skills perceived by individuals or groups as being necessary to fulfil their self-determined objectives as individuals, family and community members, consumers, employees and members of social or religious organizations. ...Literacy is the ability to read, write, comprehend and use mathematics adequately to satisfy the requirement the learner sets for him or herself as being important for his or her own life." (Manitoba Education and Training, 1989: p.2)

"A person is functionally illiterate if he or she cannot engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning in his or her community, and also for enabling him or her to continue to use reading, writing, and calculation for their own and for the community's development." (UNESCO, as quoted in Butler, 1990: p.4.)

"Illiteracy should be viewed as a continuum of undereducation, stretching from those who cannot read at all at the low end, to those who have less than high school education at the high end. People at different points along this continuum have different needs, which may differ greatly from the needs existing literacy programs are trying to meet." (Fox and Baker, 1990: p. 83)

"To be literate means to be able to fulfil one's own goals as a family and community member, citizen, worker, and member of churches, clubs and other organizations you choose. This means being able to get information and use it to improve your life, being able to use reading and writing to do the things you decide to do, and being able to use literacy as a tool to solve problems you face in everyday life." (Gillespie, 1990: p.16)

"Adult learners view literacy as increasing their independence and personal power to act on the world. It means a level of reading and writing at which they can communicate with the competence they define as necessary to deal with situations and opportunities within their environment." (Ennis and Woodrow, 1992: p.9)

"Literacy is a matter not of honing skills but of increasing confidence, familiarity and understanding, all consequences of meaningful use." (Frank Smith as quoted in Davies and McQuaid, 1992: p. ii.)

"Literacy extends far beyond the acquisition of specified skills. Students cannot hope to participate in any meaningful way in any social or democratic process without the ability to express themselves, to comprehend and respond critically to issues that are presented. Our job as instructors is to provide an enabling environment that can nurture those communication skills. This is a broad definition of literacy which extends far beyond the technical ability to read and write." (Davies and McQuaid, 1992: p.7)

"[Literacy] is a political endeavour in which one consciously participates in cultural action to promote the liberation of oneself and others." (F. Kazemek as quoted in Davies and McQuaid, 1992.)

Is Literacy Really an Issue in Canada?

The most recent literacy statistics are derived from the "Survey of Literacy Skills Used in Daily Activities" and published in the 1991 Statistics Canada Report, Adult Literacy in Canada: Results of a National Study. This was a survey of functional reading, writing and numeracy skills of Canada's adult population. It was conducted through in-home interviews with a representative sample of 9,500 people between the ages of 16 to 69, and was limited to English and French. Like previous surveys, it consisted of tasks based on the kinds of literacy and numeracy skills needed in daily life. The following skill levels were identified by the survey ( p.17-20.):

Reading Skill Levels

Level 1 - difficulty dealing with printed materials. People most likely identify themselves as those who cannot read.

Level 2 - can use printed materials only for limited purposes such as finding a familiar word in a simple text. People would likely see themselves as having difficulties with common reading materials.

Level 3 - can use reading materials in a variety of situations, provided the material is simple, clearly laid out, and the tasks involved are not too complicated. While these people generally do not see themselves as having significant reading difficulties, they tend to avoid situations requiring reading.

Level 4 - meets most everyday reading demands. This is a diverse group which exhibits a wide range of skills.

Numeracy Skill Levels

Level 1 - very limited numeracy abilities which enable individuals to, at most, locate and recognize numbers in isolation or in a short text.

Level 2 - can deal with material requiring them to perform a simple numerical operation such as addition and subtraction.

Level 3 - can deal with material requiring them to perform simple sequences of numerical operations which enable them to meet most everyday demands.

Literacy Statistics

By the year 2000, 70% of Canadian jobs will require college-level reading skills. Today, less than 50% of the workforce can function at this level. (Statistics Canada, 1991, p.9-10)

(Unless otherwise indicated, literacy statistics are from Statistics Canada, Adult Literacy in Canada: results of a national study, 1991, p.9-10.)

Sixteen per cent (2.9 million) of Canada's adults have reading skills too limited to allow them to deal with the majority of written material encountered in everyday life (Levels 1 and 2). This includes those having no abilities in English or French (2%). Of this 2%, 3 out of 4 (320,000) are women over 35 years of age.

Twenty-two per cent of adult Canadians can only handle very simple, clearly laid out reading material that is familiar to them (Level 3). Unfamiliar or complex written materials (like health and safety or environmental regulations, or company memos) may be too complex for them to read.

Only 62% of the population aged 16 to 69 have reading abilities sufficient to deal with most everyday reading requirements (Level 4). Their skills are adequate to enable them to acquire further knowledge using written material.

Thirty-eight per cent of the adult population is at risk of being functionally illiterate in many situations.

Only about 6% of Canadian youth (aged 16 to 24) are at the lowest levels of reading proficiency, but 30% of high-school students drop out of school before grade 12.

Eight per cent of adults with high school completion have limited reading abilities (Levels 1 and 2), while 70% have skills that permit them to meet daily demands (Level 4).

Twenty-two per cent of adults who have completed high school can use reading materials in a variety of situations, depending upon the complexity of the task and the text (Level 3). These adults are at risk of losing their abilities as they tend to avoid situations requiring reading.

Over one million people in the 55 to 69 age group have trouble reading such materials as labels on medicine bottles or using the yellow pages

About 65% of those entering correctional institutions for the first time could not read or write well, according to Correctional Services Canada. (Pike, 1991: p.6)

Seventy per cent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate.

Between 50% and 80% of women using services of the Elizabeth Fry Society have literacy needs. (Pike, 1991: p.6)

Rural areas have the highest rates (17%) of low literacy (Level 1 and 2).

"The Assembly of First Nations estimates that Native peoples have illiteracy rates of 45%." (NAPO, 1992: p.28)

Over 50% of Native peoples living on reserves are functionally illiterate.

Twelve per cent of adults born in Canada had skills assessed at Levels 1 and 2, compared to 28% for immigrants whose mother-tongue is often neither English nor French.

Nearly one-third of foreign born women have extreme difficulty dealing with printed material or can use printed words only for limited purposes (Levels 1 and 2), compared to over one-fifth foreign born men and approximately one-tenth Canadian born women and men.

Only 36% of immigrants with a mother-tongue other than English or French had assessed abilities to deal with most everyday Canadian materials (Level 4).

There are significant differences in reading and numeracy skills between English and French speaking Canadians. Seven per cent of Anglophones were at Level 2, compared to 13% of Francophones; and 70% of Anglophones were at Level 4, while only 58% of Francophones were at the same level.

Reading skill levels for Manitoba:

Level 1 (5%), Level 2 (7%), Level 3 (23%), Level 4 (65%).

"Less than 2% of "functionally illiterate" Canadians are enrolled in literacy programs, and only one in 10 would ever consider taking classes." (Calamai, 1988: p.9)

Numeracy Statistic
(Statistics Canada, 1991: p.11)

Fourteen per cent of Canada's adults have limited numeracy skills (Level 1). These skills enable them to, at most, locate and recognize numbers in isolation or in a short text. Their skills do not permit them to perform numerical operations consistently.

Twenty-four per cent of Canada's adults do not possess the necessary skills to meet most everyday numeracy requirements but can deal with commonly encountered documents and forms requiring them to perform a simple numerical operation such as addition or subtraction (Level 2).

Only 62% of Canada's adult population have numeracy skills sufficient to handle the numerical tasks normally encountered in everyday life. These skills enable them to deal with printed material requiring a simple sequence of numerical operations (Level 3).

Ten per cent of adults with high school completion have limited numeracy abilities (Level 1).

Twenty-five per cent of the 55 to 69 age group have limited numeracy abilities (Level 1) compared to the national figure of 14%.

Rural areas have the highest rates (18%) of low numeracy skills (Level 1).

Numeracy skill level for Manitoba:

Level 1 (13%), Level 2 (26%), Level 3 (61%)

Manitoba Statistics

150,000 to 180,000 adult Manitobans are considered illiterate or functionally illiterate, depending on the definition of literacy that is used.

The 183,000 illiterate or functionally illiterate Manitobans often quoted is extrapolated from 1986 census data.

The Southam Survey (1987) indicates that 19% of the population in Manitoba is illiterate or functionally illiterate. This figure may be low.

The John Howard Society estimates that 39% of inmates in provincial jails are illiterate or functionally illiterate.

"The illiterate and functional illiterate rates estimated for reserves average between 50% to 70%. ...On reserves, many adults are considered totally illiterate, especially those 50 years of age or older. Many of these adults also speak English as a second language. However, these are statistics often obtained from informal surveys and are therefore relatively unreliable." (Manitoba Education and Training, 1990, p. 4-5)

Chapter Two References

Butler, Maureen. Wordpower: Tutor Training Manual. Yukon Literacy Council, Whitehorse, YT. 1990.

Calamai, Peter. Broken Words: Why Five Million Canadians are Illiterate: The Southam Literacy Report. Southam Communications. 1988.

Clarke, Mallory. Goodwill Literacy Tutor Handbook. Fifth edition. Goodwill Literacy. Seattle, WA. 1991.

Davies, Paula and Ann McQuaid. Whole Language and Adult Literacy Instruction. British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education, Training and Technology. 1992.

Ennis, Frances and Helen Woodrow. Learning Together: The Challenge of Adult Literacy. A Resource Book for Trainers. Educational Planning and Design Associates, Ltd. St. John's, NF. 1992.

Fox, Mike and Catherine Baker. "Adult Literacy in the United States: Rhetoric, Recipes and Reality", in ALPHA 90, Current Research in Literacy. 1990.

Gillespie, Marilyn. Many Literacies: Modules for Training Adult Beginning Readers and Tutors. Center for International Education. University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. 1990.

Manitoba Education and Training. Recommendations of the Manitoba Task Force on Literacy. Manitoba Education & Training. Winnipeg. 1989.

National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO). Literacy and Poverty: A View From the Inside. Research Report. Ottawa. 1992.

Pike, Sue. Put it on the List... United Way of Canada. 1991.

Statistics Canada, The Daily, May 30, 1990.

Statistics Canada, Adult Literacy in Canada: Results of a National Study. Ottawa. 1991.

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