Literacy | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Literacy has been defined both as the ability to read and write one's own name and as the ability to read and understand newspapers, magazines and encyclopedia articles written at a level of sophistication often well above that of the average graduate of grade 10.


Literacy has been defined both as the ability to read and write one's own name and as the ability to read and understand newspapers, magazines and encyclopedia articles written at a level of sophistication often well above that of the average graduate of grade 10. Such widely varied definitions make it difficult to form a reliable estimate of the number of illiterates in a particular society. Claims by different writers, for example, that illiteracy in the former USSR has been eradicated and that 28% of Canadians are illiterate, are not comparable.

Before the late 1980s, no national surveys had been conducted in Canada to determine the degree of literacy of Canadians. The first such survey was conducted in 1987. Sponsored by Southam News, this survey estimated 24% of adult Canadians were illiterate. Since the 1980s adult literacy has been the focus of several international studies. A multi-language adult literacy assessment was conducted for the first time in 1994 and repeated in 2003 by the National Literacy Secretariat, Human Resources Development Canada, and Statistics Canada in cooperation with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and UNESCO. The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) found that literacy in Canada has changed little in the previous years.

A large study on literacy by Statistics Canada was released in 1989. This study identified the following levels of reading skills among adult Canadians, and, although more recent studies have been conducted, its standards still provide the parameters by which literacy is evaluated.

Level 1 (22% of adults) Canadians at this level have difficulty dealing with printed materials and have few basic skills for decoding or working with text. They most likely identify themselves as people who cannot read.

Level 2 (26% of adults) Canadians at this level can use printed materials only for limited purposes such as finding a familiar word in a simple text that is clearly laid out. They would likely recognize themselves as having difficulties with common reading materials.

Level 3 (33% of adults) Canadians at this level can use reading materials in a variety of situations provided the tasks involved are not too complex. While these people generally do not see themselves as having major reading difficulties, they tend to avoid situations requiring reading. This level is considered by many countries to be the minimum for successful participation in society.

Level 4 or 5 (20% of adults) Canadians at this level have strong literacy skills. This is a large and diverse group that exhibits a wide range of reading skills and many strategies for dealing with complex materials. These people can meet most reading demands and handle new reading challenges.

A portion of the adults evaluated in the 1989 study who were at the lower levels of literacy were immigrants and not literate in English or French, so the results are not an accurate measure of true literacy in this group. However, about 3% of the adults born in Canada were at level 1. The tests used in these surveys used materials adults normally confront in their daily life: bus schedules, manuals, classified advertisements, etc. It is not clear, however, which level is necessary for adults to read all that they need in order to meet all the literacy demands they face in Canadian society.

Measure of Literacy

Organizations such as UNESCO consider that anyone in an industrialized society who has less than a grade 5 education is wholly illiterate and that those with less than grade 9 are functionally illiterate. By these standards, nearly one in every 6 Canadians is functionally illiterate. Functionally illiterate means that a person can read or write, but at a level that is inadequate for ordinary needs. The actual definition of literacy used in international standards is being able to read and write in any language. Literacy no longer appears to differ significantly by gender, though females generally learn to read faster and score higher on reading tests while in school, the proportion of functional illiterates calculated by the grade-completed criterion is nearly identical for males (18%) and females (17.5%).

"Grade completed," however, is a very indirect and inadequate measure of literacy. First, it is not at all clear whether even with 10 or 11 years of schooling individuals can be considered functionally literate in advanced technological societies; moreover, individuals vary greatly in achievement after a specific period of schooling - many grade 8 students perform well above the level of the average grade 10 student; conversely, many grade 10 students perform below the level of the average grade 8 student.

However these calculations fail to take into account other and possibly more important factors than literacy that affect employment and social mobility; such as class, ethnicity and gender. In the 19th century the majority of Irish Catholic immigrants to Canada were literate, but they occupied the lower economic and social ranks. Women and blacks, regardless of education levels, fared even worse socially.

Literacy has often been equated with occupational status. For example, it was calculated that of the population 15 years of age and over who were considered to be functionally illiterate, only one-third were employed. Each year of education is worth approximately 8 % increase in salary. Canadians with higher literacy skills earn more income, are more likely to have full-time work, are less likely to be unemployed and spend shorter periods of time unemployed. Moreover employees with higher literacy skills help company competitiveness. Literacy also increases individual productivity; a rise of 1 percent literacy according to international standards is equated with a 2.5 percent increase in labour productivity, and a 1.5 percent increase in gross domestic product per person.

There are approximately four out of ten adults in Canada, or 9 million people, who are considered to have low literacy and this group is twice as likely as other Canadians to be unemployed. Of the Canadians with low literacy, only 15 percent have significant problems dealing with any type of printed material, although 27 percent have only simple reading skills. Currently there are more people with low literacy in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec and Nunavut than the national average. The majority of youth in Canada age 16 to 25 achieve the minimum levels of literacy required in a modern society. However from 18 percent to 38 percent of young people do not achieve the minimum levels, depending on the region.

Value to Society

Since the 19th century, literacy in Canada has been perceived as a personal and social "good," although the precise meaning of literacy and the understanding of what individuals are expected to achieve from their instruction in and possession of literacy is unclear. Nevertheless, many individuals exert great effort to become literate, even late in life, and societies with sharply contrasting political systems promote literacy through widespread popular education.

In Canada literacy has been promoted primarily by school boards, libraries and, to a lesser degree, by private organizations. Public EDUCATION in Canada has fostered and encouraged literacy. Among private agencies Frontier College, established 1899, was the first Canadian organization to receive a UNESCO medal for exemplary work in promoting literacy (1977). Canada's colleges in general are largely responsible for the provision of basic ADULT EDUCATION programs, including those specifically designed to enhance literacy.

Canada celebrates Family Literacy Day on January 27 every year. This day to acknowledge the importance of families reading together was founded by private sector companies and began in 1999. Literacy-themed events occur across the country at schools and public libraries.


Canadians in general are gradually becoming more literate and more educated. For example, more Canadians are currently completing secondary school than in 1990; during the same period the percentage of Canadians with college or trade certification or a university degree also increased.

Although Canadians are now more literate in an absolute sense, it is not known if they keep pace with the demand in new literacy skills, because little work has been done in tracking the changing levels of literacy needed for full participation in society. The ability to read involves 3 major components: reasoning ability, mastery of language and familiarity with the alphabetic code.

The second component, mastery of language, is particularly important. Much of language is coded knowledge. This means that as knowledge expands so does the language that is needed to describe it. This in effect means that individuals can be or become relatively illiterate because they are or have become ignorant of new knowledge. In order to read anything at all with understanding, individuals must possess sufficient prior knowledge. If, therefore, knowledge expands at a rate faster than the ability to absorb it, the potential of a decline in situational or relative literacy is real.

Over the past few years the terms "visual literacy" and "computer literacy" have become popular. In both instances "literacy" refers to familiarity with and an ability to manipulate the object in question: visual symbiotic material or computers.