Adult Literacy Rate—Low-Level Skills

Key Messages

  • Canada gets a “C” and ranks 8th out of 13 countries on the percentage of adults scoring low on adult literacy rate tests.
  • Four out of ten Canadian adults have literacy skills too low to be fully competent in most jobs in our modern economy.
  • Canadian adults with low literacy skills have fewer opportunities than young Canadians to upgrade their skills because they are outside the mainstream education system.

Putting the adult literacy rate in context

The results of international adult literacy surveys dispel the old notion that individuals are either literate or illiterate. There is no arbitrary standard distinguishing adults who have or do not have skills. Instead, skills are defined along a continuum of proficiency that can be used to denote how well adults use information to function in society and the economy.1 Adult literacy survey results show a strong link between literacy and a country’s economic potential.

The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) was a seven-country initiative—including Canada—first conducted in 1994. The idea was to create a comparative adult literacy rate for adults aged 16 to 65. Second and third waves of data were collected for 16 additional countries in 1996 and 1998, leading to a data set for 23 countries. Bermuda, Canada, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the U.S., and the Mexican State of Nuevo Leon participated in another survey, the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS) in 2003. The varying participation in the IALS and ALLS surveys means our comparison is based on the most recent test for each country. For most, this is the IALS survey, but for Canada, Norway, Switzerland, and the U.S., the results are from the ALLS survey.

Three categories of literacy were tested:

  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 cheque book, calculating a tip, or completing an order form.

An average of the results from these three literacy categories is used in the Conference Board’s ranking system.

Participants’ skills were rated on a continuous scale from level 1 to level 5. Those at levels 1 and 2 literacy had low literacy skills. The easiest task in level 1 asked the participant to look at a medicine label and determine the “maximum number of days you should take this medicine.” The participant had to go to the label and locate the phrase “not longer than 7 days.” Level 2 participants could deal only with material that was simple and clearly laid out; they may have adapted their lower literacy skills to everyday life, but would have difficulty learning new job skills requiring a higher level of literacy.

How do the literacy skills of adults in Canada compare to those in its peer countries?

Canada is a “C” performer on the percentage of adults that scored low on adult literacy rate tests. Four out of ten Canadian adults lack the literacy skills necessary to be fully competent in most jobs in our modern economy. There are no superstars on this indicator. Even in Sweden—this year’s top performer in the Conference Board rankings—nearly 30 per cent of adults have low-level literacy skills.

Have the literacy skills of Canadians improved?

No. Results from the 2003 survey confirmed findings from the earlier IALS: A large percentage of adult Canadians have difficulty coping with the unfamiliar literacy and numeracy demands of modern life and work. Of the four peer countries that participated in both the 1994–98 IALS and the 2003 ALLS, none saw a decline in the proportion of its adult population with low literacy. Canada, Switzerland, and Norway had only marginal increases, while the proportion in the U.S. increased from 48 per cent to 53 per cent.

What impact do low literacy skills have in the workplace?

Low literacy skills impede a business’ ability to compete. In a detailed analysis of the Canadian IALS survey results, the Conference Board found that the “marginally literate”—those with level 2 and low-level 3 literacy skills—pose a significant challenge for employers.2 The group accounts for fully one-quarter of all workers in the Canadian labour force. Improving the literacy skills of this group would have significant positive outcomes for employers—in terms of productivity, innovation, and bottom-line results—and for the employees themselves—in terms of earnings, work performance, and quality of life.

Most literacy intervention programs target individuals at the lowest literacy level. Those who are “marginally literate” are often overlooked for workplace literacy programs, partially because they generally overstate their literacy skills and are unaware of the need to upgrade their skills. A full 80 per cent of the “marginally literate” in Canada identified themselves as having “excellent” or “good” literacy skills.3

Efforts to improve literacy among this group are cost-effective because this group has already achieved a basic level of literacy. Moving this group up to a solid level 3—considered to be the minimum “job standard” level that enables employees to cope with the demands of work—would be less expensive and involve fewer resources, per capita, than moving the group of employees with extremely rudimentary level 1 literacy skills up to level 3.

Interested in learning more?

What can Canadian employers do to raise the skills of the “marginally literate”?

The Conference Board has suggested five strategies to help employers move their marginally literate employees well into the “job standard” level 3 category of IALS literacy scores:4

  1. Improve access to training through workplace and community learning programs.
  2. Take a holistic view, targeting training to develop the whole person rather than just a segmented set of skills.
  3. Adapt jobs and workplace tasks to increase the use of literacy skills.
  4. Focus on the “nearly there”—those employees already close to the “job standard” level who may require only modest targeted interventions to raise their literacy skills to that level.
  5. Encourage individuals to stay in school.

Interested in practical advice on how to set up or sustain a workplace literacy program?

Are there any “best practice” models for workplace literacy programs?

The Conference Board published a diagram outlining the key success factors for workplace literacy programs.

The 12 success factors in the diagram are based on a review of relevant literature, an international survey, regional focus groups, and case study interviews with employers, unions, trainers and adult learning teachers, government representatives, and other learning partners. Data from national award programs for excellence in workplace literacy were also analyzed.

For each of the 12 success factors, several ideas for action are presented for the benefit of employers and their learning partners. While the ideas for action are not exhaustive, they do provide particularly effective examples for employers to replicate, where appropriate for their workplace and workforce.

Interested in learning more about best-practice workplace literacy programs?

What can Canada do to raise all adult literacy skills?

Although some organizations have innovative lifelong learning programs, no broad approach is being taken to address adult literacy in Canada. Canada needs to build a “learning culture” and ensure that Canadians have access to learning opportunities throughout their working lives.

Canada ranks 8th out of 13 peer countries in the amount of time that workers participate in non-formal job-related training.5 Moreover, according to the results of the 2011 Learning and Development Outlook survey, Canadian organizations spent an average of $688 per employee on training, learning, and development in 2010.6 This is down from $787 in 2008, and represents a decline of nearly 40 per cent since the spending peak of the early 1990s. In addition, the Learning and Development Outlook report cautions that, “while nearly one-third of organizations predicted increases in spending for 2011, the anticipated percentage of increase will not bring spending up to previous high levels.”7

Most students who graduate from high school and university do so with adequate skills. But it is not enough to have a good high-school graduation rate or university graduation rate. Literacy skills erode if they are not used—the “use it or lose it” phenomenon. If, for example, a university mathematics graduate takes a job that does not require the use of math skills, that graduate will, over time, lose proficiency in those skills. Adults must engage in formal or informal lifelong learning to maintain their skills.

Without significant efforts to improve adult literacy skills, Canada risks falling further behind countries—like Sweden, Finland, and Norway—that have a strong focus on raising adult literacy skills.

Interested in learning more?


1 Statistics Canada and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (Ottawa and Paris: Statistics Canada and OECD, 2005), 15.

2 Alison Campbell and Natalie Gagnon, Literacy, Life and Employment: An Analysis of Canadian International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) Microdata (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2006).

3 Alison Campbell and Natalie Gagnon Literacy, Life and Employment: An Analysis of Canadian International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) Microdata (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2006), 11.

4 Alison Campbell and Natalie Gagnon, Literacy, Life and Employment: An Analysis of Canadian International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) Microdata (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2006), ii.

5 OECD, Education at a Glance 2011, Chart C5.2 (Paris: OECD, 2011), 367.

6 Carrie Lavis, Learning and Development Outlook 2011: Are Organizations Ready for Learning 2.0? (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2011), 13.

7 Carrie Lavis, Learning and Development Outlook 2011: Are Organizations Ready for Learning 2.0? (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2011), 13.

Education and Skills Indicators

See discussions on other indicators
High-school completionStudents with high-level science skills
College completionAdult literacy rate—low-level skills
University completionAdult literacy rate—high-level skills
PhD graduatesPerformance of disadvantaged schools
Percentage of graduates in science, math, computer science, and engineeringAdult participation in education
Students with low-level reading skillsEquity in learning outcomes
Students with high-level reading skillsForeign student index
Students with low-level math skillsGender gap in tertiary attainment
Students with high-level math skillsReturn on investment in tertiary education, men
Students with low-level science skillsReturn on investment in tertiary education, women