What is the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey (IALSS)? A Canadian perspective

IALS was a ground-breaking, trans-national survey of adults “designed to profile and explore the literacy distributions among participating countries. It was a collaborative effort involving several international organizations, intergovernmental agencies, and national governments.” (Kirsch, 2001).

Known as both the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) the name used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), 1997),  became later known as the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) (Statistics Canada, 2005b).

They were, in effect, two different surveys. The first was developed in the late 1990s and the second in the early years of the new millennium. Both have been used extensively in literacy research, both at the provincial and federal levels in Canada. We find references to them in documents dating back to 1998:

  • Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (Ontario), 1998
  • Yamamoto & Kirsch, 2002
  • D. Willms, 2003
  • Statistics Canada, 2005
  • J. D. Willms & Murray, 2007
  • Murray, 2009 and Murray, et al., 2009

IALSS offers 5 general benchmarks for literacy:

Level one – Basic identification of words and numbers. Basic decoding.

Level two – Identifying words and numbers in a context and being able to respond with simple information e.g. Being able to fill in a form.

Level three – Identify, understand, synthesize and respond to information. Be able to match given information which corresponds to a question. This level corresponds roughly with high school completion levels.

Level four – Have sufficient skills to decode, comprehend, synthesize and interpret information and respond accordingly. Higher level skills in understanding and interpreting information, responding and problem solving.

Level five – Understand and verify the sufficiency of the information, synthesize, interpret, analyze and discuss the information. Sophisticated skills in handling information.

Adapted from: Kirsch (2001) and Statistics Canada (2005) and Alberta Advanced Education and Technology (2009)

The 2003 version of IALSS “tested more than 23,000 Canadians on their proficiency in four domains: prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy and problem-solving.”

IALSS is an asset-based framework. It measures what people can do, rather than what their deficiencies are. The Statistics Canada website says:

The IALSS did not measure the absence of competence. Rather it measured knowledge and skills in the four domains across a range of abilities. Consequently, the results cannot be used to classify population groups as either “literate” or “illiterate”.

Put another way, IALSS is not intended to classify people as either illiterate or literate, but rather to conceptualize proficiency along a continuum that denotes “how well adults use information to function in society and the economy” (Statistics Canada, 2005a).

IALSS allows us to understand literacy in a functional way.

“The 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey found a clear link between proficiency in literacy and an individual’s employability. People with low proficiency in literacy tend to have lower rates of employment, and they tend to work in occupations with lower skill requirements.” (Statistics Canada, 2005b)

Because of IALLS we can start to correlate what literacy skills mean in economic and employability terms.

IALSS has become such a common way of understanding literacy skills that often when researchers and other experts talk about “literacy scores”, what they are referring to is IALSS. For example, T. Scott Murray and his team of researchers assert that “Literacy is economically and socially important to individuals, with differences in literacy score explaining a significant proportion of social inequality in a range of outcomes.” (Murray, et al., 2009, p. 3).

IALSS offers a breakthrough approach, gives us a way to understand literacy in a broader context. Because of its scope and the fact that it values skills rather than pointing deficiencies, it’s applicability extends beyond literacy itself.


Alberta Advanced Education and Technology. (2009). Living Literacy: A Literacy Framework for Alberta’s Next Generation Economy.

Kirsch, I. (2001). The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS): Understanding What Was Measured: Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (Ontario). (1998). Adult Literacy in Ontario: The International Adult Literacy Survey Results.   Retrieved October 18, 2009, from http://www.nald.ca/library/research/ontario/cover.htm

Murray, T. S. (2009). Understanding  literacy markets in  Alberta: What a segmentation  analysis reveals.

Murray, T. S., McCracken, M., Willms, D., Jones, S., Shillington, R., & Stucker, J. (2009). Addressing Canada’s Literacy Challenge: A Cost/ Benefit Analysis.   Retrieved October 20, 2009, from http://www.nald.ca/library/research/cost_benefit/cover.htm

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development / Organisation de Coopération et de Développement Economiques, & Human Resources Development Canada. (1997). Literacy Skill for the Knowledge Society: Further results of the International Adult Literacy Survey. Paris and Ottawa.

Statistics Canada. (2005a). International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey.   Retrieved November 20, 2009, from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/051109/dq051109a-eng.htm

Statistics Canada. (2005b). International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey: Building on our competencies.   Retrieved November 15, 2009, from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/051130/dq051130b-eng.htm

Willms, D. (2003). Literacy proficiency of youth: evidence of converging socioeconomic gradients. International Journal of Educational Research, 39(3), 247-252.

Willms, J. D., & Murray, T. S. (2007). Gaining and Losing Literacy Skills Over the Lifecourse.   Retrieved October 20, 2009, from http://www.nald.ca/library/research/gaining/cover.htm

Yamamoto, K., & Kirsch, I. (2002). Scaling TOWES and Linking to IALS. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

To learn more about asset-based frameworks, check out these related posts:


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

2 Responses to What is the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey (IALSS)? A Canadian perspective

  1. […] Literacy Skills Survey By Tina, on May 3rd, 2011 Sarah Eaton has posted a concise, easy to read explanation of International Adult Literacy Skills Survey (IALSS).  It describes what IALSS […]

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