Friday, July 6, 2007

Study: Gaining and losing literacy skills over the life course (1994-2003)

Many Canadians experience a significant loss of literacy skills during adulthood, and this loss appears to be concentrated in adults from lower socio-economic backgrounds, according to a new study.

The study, based on findings from the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and the 2003 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, examined how Canada's stock of literacy skills evolved during the nine-year period between the two surveys.

It showed that literacy is not a static commodity acquired in youth and maintained throughout life.

The results provided compelling evidence that, on average, some groups of people lose literacy skills after the period of formal schooling, but the amount of skill loss differs considerably from group to group.

The loss of literacy skills in Canada appears to be a gradual process that begins at the age of about 25, peaks at around 40, and tapers off during late middle age (55).

For example, adults aged 40 in 1994 had average scores on the IALS literacy test of about 288. When this test was implemented nine years later, those who were aged 49 had average scores of about 275.

A skill loss of about 13 points over the nine year period is roughly equivalent to the average increase in literacy skills associated with half a year of additional schooling.

Taking into account that the loss of literacy skills appeared to be lesser for young and late middle age adults, the study estimated that on average, most Canadian adults experience a skill loss over their lifetime of about one grade level.

Several factors can reduce the magnitude of losses, according to the study. For example, exposure to education appears to have a positive impact on keeping literacy skills. Individuals with a university degree had average scores that were about 30 points higher than those of secondary school graduates.

The level of general reading at work also had a positive impact, as did employment.

Individuals who read frequently, and choose a wider range of materials, scored higher than those who did not read as frequently. Individuals who were employed scored about 12 points higher than those who were not in the labour force. This finding suggests that the prevailing level of economic and social demand for skill use has an impact on skill maintenance.

The study also examined differences among the provinces in their average levels of literacy and their skill loss. Provinces and regions varied substantially in their average levels of literacy skills.

A small proportion of these disparities is attributable to differences in the demographic age and sex distributions of the provinces. But even when these were taken into account, there remained considerable variation.

The study results hold several important messages for policy makers, and suggest that the magnitude of literacy skill loss is high when judged in educational terms, for it eliminates literacy acquisition that took months, or even years, to acquire on average.

In addition, given the relationship of literacy skills to individual economic and social outcomes, and to macro-economic performance, it is reasonable to assume that the economy pays a price for literacy skill loss.

Finally, the probability of whether a group will gain or lose literacy skills appears to depend on a variety of factors over which both individuals and governments can exert some degree of control.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey number 4406.

This article is from The Daily, Statistics Canada's official release bulletin. You can access the full text and charts of this article at:

The report "Gaining and losing literacy skills over the lifecourse", as part of the International Adult Literacy Survey Series (89-552-MWE2007016, free), is now available from the Publications module of our website.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Client Services (toll-free 1-800-307-3382; 613-951-7608; fax: 613-951-4441;, Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics.


literacies editor said...

I’m disappointed that this press release was reproduced rather than discussed. This study is part of a larger project by the OECD, via Statistics Canada, to link literacy and economic productivity. Out of context, as this post is, the results of IALLS are quite often used against working people with the least education and therefore privilege. One piece of context that could have been illuminating is another paper that Stats Can released last year showing that whether or not your employer pays for training and retraining depends greatly on your level of education. We all know that access to higher education is still highly correlated with socioeconomic status, so this means that the educated get richer and the poor are kept in McJobs. Last year’s report showed that people with university education are most likely be in jobs that pay for some, if not all, of the work-related training. Meanwhile, people who come to adult literacy programs include those who have been told that they now need a GED to do the job they've been doing for the past 10 or 15 years... And media discussions of literacy continue to focus on blaming individuals who struggle with literacy for Canada’s “low productivity” and “lack of competitiveness”.

Nor do our governments seem keen to change things. As Veeman, Ward and Walker point out in Valuing Literacy: Rhetoric or Reality (Detselig, 2006), the way adult education is structured and funded in this country is nothing short of ‘creaming’ – those who need the most help with literacy are the least likely to get support. That is, “the emphasis has been on sustaining meritocracy rather than on producing social equity… Literacy in countries such as Canada is seen as the individual’s problem to be solved, and the rampant individualism that has damaged trust, fairness, and social bonds has not served to raise literacy levels.” (p. 105)

Another piece of puzzle is the fact that literacy – a continuum of interaction with print – is being reduced year by year to a very finite list of decontextualized ‘skills’ which are increasingly being used to classify, label and exclude people.

The space to talk about who does and does not have access to education, and whose interests are served by what education is offered, is shrinking every day. That is not to say the discussion isn’t happening. Here are some examples that I hope will serve as useful connections:

* Discussion of the links between violence and difficulties in school:

* Discussion of the particular issues faced by indigenous people:

* A recent report about research in practice in adult literacy includes a chapter that documents the very real limits that prevent adults from improving their literacy ‘skills’, including the appalling working conditions in adult literacy:

Feel free, too, to check out back issues of Literacies, which is a forum for discussion of all questions related to adult literacy work in Canada:

Tannis Atkinson
Editor, Literacies

Centre for the Study of Education & Work said...

Thank you for your comments. I posted the article to generate thoughtful discussion.

Rhonda Sussman
Centre for the Study of Education and Work (CSEW)