Reading the Future: A Portrait of Literacy In Canada


International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS)

IALS: The First of its kind

The 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) was the first multi-country and multi-language assessment of adult literacy. Conducted in eight industrialized countries-Canada, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States-the survey's goals were to develop scales for comparisons of literacy performance among people with a wide range of abilities, and to compare literacy across cultures and languages.

The results of the survey shed light on the social and economic impacts of different levels of literacy, the underlying factors which cause them and how they might be amenable to policy intervention.

The survey was sponsored by the National Literacy Secretariat and the Applied Research Branch of Human Resources Development Canada and was managed by Statistics Canada in cooperation with the OECD, Eurostat, and UNESCO. Key support was given by the U.S. Educational Testing Service, the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, and survey and educational researchers in all the participating countries. The international results of the IALS were published in December 1995; the Canadian results are now being released. Each participating country will be publishing their own data.

Reading the Future: A detailed picture

The Canadian report entitled Reading the Future: A portrait of literacy in Canada is a detailed study derived from the IALS results. The data are broken down by language, age, gender, and region. Most importantly, the report provides new information with which to judge Canadian policy on literacy, education and social and economic development. By opening a window on the life of Canadians at home, in the community, and in the workplace, the report gives Canadians a glimpse of their possible future.

Redefining literacy: Canada's pioneering role

The choice of Statistics Canada to design and manage the survey was a recognition of Canada's pioneering role in redefining literacy and its linkage to human resource development. In 1989, Statistics Canada was commissioned by the National Literacy Secretariat to produce the first Canadian profile of Literacy Skills Used in Daily Activities (LSUDA). This survey dispelled the old notion that individuals are either literate or illiterate and introduced a new concept of literacy as a continuum of skills ranging from quite limited to very high. The IALS built on this new view of literacy, defining it as:

the ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities, at home, at work and in the community, to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential.

The international dimension: Reading the results

The goal of this survey was not to rank countries from the most literate to the least literate. Rather, its aim was to compare, across cultures and languages, literacy performance among people with a wide range of abilities. Consequently, any direct comparisons across countries must incorporate an understanding of the social and economic characteristics of each country that underlie the observed literacy skill profiles. With this caveat, IALS makes it possible to place Canada in the international literacy continuum.

Literacy: A national and an international issue

The reintegration of the Central and Eastern European countries into the world economy, and the continuing rapid advance of industrialized countries in Asia and Latin America, have altered the economic status quo. The economies of the OECD countries now face large, well-educated and relatively low-wage labour forces in emerging competitive nations. While new forms of co-operation across borders have emerged, competition for investment capital has also intensified. New opportunities-as well as uncertainties and risks-are inherent in this situation. Certain countries, firms and individuals are well positioned to compete successfully in global markets; others may have difficulty taking advantage of the opportunities.

The emerging global economy is characterized by greatly increased flows of information and financial capital within, and among nations. The best way to exploit this new economic environment is to strengthen the capacity of firms and labour markets to adjust to change, improve their productivity and capitalize on innovation. But this capacity depends first and foremost on the knowledge and skills of the population. IALS shows that the literacy skills of individual citizens are a powerful determinant of a country's innovative and adaptive capacity.

Measuring literacy: More than one gauge

Literacy cannot be narrowly defined as a single skill that enables people to deal with all types of text. People in industrialized countries face many different kinds of written material every day, and they require different skills to understand and use the information. To reflect this complexity, IALS developed three categories of literacy:

1 . Prose literacy: the ability to understand and use information from texts such as editorials, news stories, poems and fiction.

2. Document literacy: the ability to locate and use information from documents such as job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables and graphs.

3. Quantitative literacy: the ability to perform arithmetic functions such as balancing a chequebook, calculating a tip, or completing an order form.

The specific literacy tasks designed for IALS were scaled by difficulty from 0 to 500 points. This range was subsequently divided into five broad literacy levels.