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Literacy Facts

Since its inception in 1990, ABC CANADA has worked to improve the literacy skills of Canadians. We do this by managing programs that encourage literacy activities, conducting research that sheds light on literacy practice, developing public-awareness campaigns that educate the general public on literacy issues and direct those who require literacy skills upgrading to literacy organizations that provide that service.

Low literacy is a fact in Canada, and it is more wide-spread than many would presume. Statistics Canada, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, and the US National Center for Education Statistics have conducted research that indicates the literacy proficiency of Canadians. These statistics create a revealing picture of the literacy levels scored by Canadians - by province and territory, and nationally.

To view the most recent literacy results, consult:

  • ABC CANADA's Summary of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey (a survey released May, 2005); and
  • ABC CANADA's Summary of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) [PDF, 428 KB] (released November, 2005)

The fact of low literacy impacts sectors of our society and the economy. For statistics pertaining to this, please see:

Adult Literacy in Canada

More of a problem than many realize

  • Four out of 10 adult Canadians, age 16 to 65 - representing 9 million Canadians - struggle with low literacy. (Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey, Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2005)
  • Considering those adult Canadians with low literacy, 15 per cent have serious problems dealing with any printed materials; an additional 27 per cent can only deal with simple reading tasks. (Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, 2005)
  • Five provinces and territories - Newfoundland and Labrador, PEI, New Brunswick, Quebec and Nunavut - have more people with low literacy than the national average. The Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have fewer people with low literacy. (International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), Statistics Canada, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, and the US National Center for Education Statistics, 2005)
  • While the performance of the three western provinces is relatively better than in other regions of the country, four out of 10 people in those provinces still fall in the low-literacy range. (International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), 2005)
  • As you go across the country, the percentage of Canadians 16 and over with the lowest literacy skills range from 14 per cent to 24 per cent, with Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Quebec having the highest percentages. This position has persisted from 1994 statistics to these most recent 2003 statistics. (International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), 2005)
  • Though the majority of Canadian youth, age 16 to 25, attain the minimum level of literacy skills needed to cope with the demands of everyday life and work, anywhere from 18 per cent to 38 per cent of youth, depending upon the region of the country, do not attain that minimum proficiency. (International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), 2005)
  • Sixty per cent of immigrants have low literacy, compared with 37 per cent of native-born Canadians. (International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), 2005)

Barriers to learning involve programs, policies, socio-economic factors

  • Less than half of those who contact a literacy organization actually enroll in a program and of those who enroll, 30 per cent drop out. (Patterns of Participation in Canadian Literacy and Upgrading Programs, ABC CANADA in partnership with Literacy BC, 2001)
  • Forty-three per cent of those who don't enroll in a program cite program and policy-related issues as barriers, such as the program contact person not calling them back, long waiting lists and inconvenient times. (Patterns of Participation)
  • Dramatic regional variances in program delivery exist. For example, more than one third have no full-time staff; more than two-thirds have one or less full-time staff; and close to 40 per cent are open less than 35 hours per week. This circumstance suggests there is need for greater funding and for significant infrastructural change. (Patterns of Participation)
  • The most highly ranked set of concerns about taking a course are about money/conflict with paid employment and the distant location of the program offered, followed by program-related concerns such as program length, level of difficulty, concerns about the ability to work at one's own pace and relevance of content. (Non-Participation in Literacy and Upgrading Programs, ABC CANADA, 2002)
  • Less than 10 per cent of Canadians who could benefit from literacy upgrading programs actually enroll. Research indicates that barriers like job or money problems, lack of childcare and transportation are some of reasons preventing people from enrolling. (Who Wants to Learn?, ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation, 2001)
  • Barriers to participation represent challenges to policy makers (to mitigate financial problems and enhance opportunities related to family circumstances, such as providing childcare and eldercare), employers and unions (to provide for upgrading opportunities) and the literacy field (to restructure where needed and address the misunderstandings and nervousness potential participants may harbour). (Non-Participation)
  • Among non-high school graduates interviewed, close to 60 per cent said they thought about taking upgrading or completing their high school diploma while only 20 per cent thought they would actually take a program in the next five years. (Non-Participation)

Low literacy impacts personal growth and economic well-being

  • There is a correlation between literacy and wage levels in Canada. A Statistics Canada study indicates that each additional year of education a person receives is worth 8.3 per cent on their paycheque. Using an annual base salary of $30,000, this amounts to an additional $2,490 per year. (Literacy, Numeracy and Labour Market Outcomes in Canada, Statistics Canada, 2001)
  • The 9 million Canadian adults who have low literacy are about twice as likely to be unemployed. (International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), 2005)
  • A rise of one per cent in literacy scores relative to the international average is associated with an eventual 2.5 per cent relative rise in labour productivity and a 1.5 per cent rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person. ("Literacy scores, human capital and growth across 14 OECD countries," Serge Coulombe, Jean-François Tremblay and Sylvie Marchand, Statistics Canada, 2004)

At ABC CANADA we believe that one of the keys to developing a competitive and stable economy is to ensure that Canadians are continually learning. One of our jobs is to make Canadians aware of the opportunities that await them as they enter into a life of learning. We are also committed to connecting Canadians with literacy programs through ABC CANADA's Look Under LEARN campaign with toll-free numbers listed in all Yellow Pages™ directories across Canada, connecting learners with literacy organizations in their own communities.

Use it or lose it

A Statistics Canada report, Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society (1997), also underscores these themes:

  • Literacy skills are like muscles - they are maintained and strengthened through regular use;
  • The higher an individual's literacy level, the more likely he/she will be employed and have a higher income;
  • Canadians use their literacy skills more in the workplace than at home;
  • 'Good' jobs are those that provide opportunities to maintain and enhance literacy skills.

Literacy Lingo

These commonly used words and phrases are the preferred ways to communicate information about literacy.

  • Use "low literacy skills" instead of "illiterate." The term "illiterate" is no longer used in literacy circles as it denotes an extremely small percentage of people who would not be able to recognize any words whatsoever.
  • Use "low literacy skills" instead of "lack of literacy skills."
  • "Literacy" = Grade 8 or under
    "Upgrading" = Grade 9 or over
    Taken together, they are known as "adult basic education"
  • Use "adult basic education" instead of "adult education"
  • Refer to "people with literacy needs" or "people with literacy challenges/difficulties"
  • When speaking to potential learners, refer to "reading, writing and math skills" not "literacy skills"

Literacy Definition

"The ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities at home, at work and in the community - to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential." (Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Human Resources Development Canada and the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, 1997)

Literacy Levels

Level 1 - People who have difficulty with printed materials and identify themselves as unable to read.

Level 2 - People who can use printed materials for limited purposes such as finding a familiar word in a simple text.

Level 3 - People who can use reading materials in a variety of situations providing it is simple, clearly laid out and the tasks involved are not too complex. The minimum skills level suitable for coping with the demands of everyday life and work in a complex, advanced society. It denotes roughly the skills level required for successful secondary school completion and college entry.


Levels 4 and 5 - People who demonstrate a command of higher-order information-processing skills.

Literacy Links

Statistical information on the Web

Page last updated: 11 May 2006