You thought Canada was a literate country? Think again

In 2003, the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey (IALLS) tested more than 23,000 Canadians in four areas:

  • prose literacy
  • document literacy
  • numeracy
  • problem-solving

Proficiency was rated on the basis of levels one to five, that is, lowest to highest. Level 3 corresponds roughly to high school completion.

In case you’re wondering what this test was all about anyway… IALLS is the Canadian component of the “Adult Literacy and Life Skills” study, which was a joint project of the Government of Canada, the US National Center for Education Statistics and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The larger study was an international undertaking, involving thousands of people from numerous countries. In the literacy world, it’s a big deal. The results are a big deal for all of us Canadians. We have more work to do to raise the bar for all Canadians.

Literacy isn’t a black and white issue. It’s not a matter of “You can read” or “You can’t read”. There’s a continuum. Skills can be built at any time over the life span. They can also decline if we don’t use them.

Sad blonde girl with bookThere is an idea out there at literacy is “an immigrant problem.” Well, folks, it’s a myth. While it’s true that about 60% of new immigrants to Canada scored below Level 3 on the IALSS test, there are tens of thousands of people born right here in Canada who lack sufficient literacy skills.

One shocking result of the test?

2% of Canadian born university-educated individuals scored at the lowest level of prose literacy.

We have to ask ourselves: How are we allowing these people to slip through the cracks, grade after grade and year after year? How is it that someone born in Canada can graduate with an undergraduate degree when they score at the lowest level possible on an international literacy test? Although those results are troubling, some might argue that those people are the exception, that they are the outliers on the bell curve of test results.

Before you write off the stats as being an exception, think about this result:

About 37% of the total Canadian-born population scored below Level 3 in prose literacy.

In other words, about 9 million Canadian-born adult citizens lack sufficient literacy skills to function in the workplace.

Let’s put that into perspective for a minute.

9 Million people…

That’s the entire population of Nova Scotia. Multiplied by 9.

The number of people killed during the Russian Revolution over half a decade from 1917-1922.

The number of people in the UK who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.

The number of people who follow Justin Bieber on Twitter.

Just under the total number of people in the entire world who suffer from hunger.

However you look at it, 9 million is a lot of people.

What can we do, Canada, to raise the bar for literacy?


Related posts

Canada’s 9 Literacy and Essential Skills

Literacy and Essential Skills (video)

“The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read”


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

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