Are 1 in 6 Canadians illiterate or 10th best readers in the world?

During the last year, we have been given conflicting information about how well Canadians can read. First to be released, in May of 2010, was a Statistics Canada report that claimed 1 in 6 Canadians were functionally illiterate or 14.6% of the 42% who were considered semi-illiterate.  For specific information on those statistics, read this CBC story. It is titled “Canada’s Shame” and is clearly an attempt to justify increasing funding and programs for adults with literacy difficulties.

Now, I am all for helping people who need it. I operated my own private reading clinic for a decade or more to do just that.  But, something is wrong when StatsCan has to use twelve-year-old numbers to make their case. Here, for example, is how the joint StatsCan, IALS (OECD’s International Adult Literacy Survey) study is explained — that the first round of IALS surveys were conducted in 1995, followed by second and third rounds in 1996 and 1998, with the final report pertaining to 23 countries or regions being released in 2000.

So, given how out of date that data was, why was it released in 2010? And, why was it discussed in the absence of other studies — particularly since both studies involved the OECD and data pertaining to the the studies on the reading competency of fifteen-year-olds was already available for 2000, 2003 and 2006? And, just last week, the 2009 OECD’s school-based international test scores in reading were released (December, 2010). Involving 70 countries, that report found that Canadian youth ranked tenth overall for reading, having slipped from 7th overall three years ago in 2006.

Now, here is the Canadian dilemma: Given the latest OECD school-based reading tests and the explanation in the CBC column, how can we have 42% of our population semi-illiterate while our high school graduates are performing well above the norm. I mean, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t be drowning in illiteracy while our kids are excelling.

So, which is it?

4 thoughts on “Are 1 in 6 Canadians illiterate or 10th best readers in the world?

  1. You raise serious questions about two critical matters: First, advocacy groups in the Canadian literacy education field who sound alarm bells while seeking more public funding for their activities. And secondly, the widespread tendency to generalize about literacy levels based upon conflicting sets of data.

    That CBC show, “Canada’s Shame,” is a good example of the first phenomenon because it did give voice to those seeking more public funding.

    I find your conclusion to be quite compelling. We are either “drowning” in illiteracy or doing just fine. Which set of data are we to believe?

    Yes, Sandy, but that’s what happens when a field is virtually bereft of serious, validated scholarly research. With OISE now under fire for its recent shoddy, “politically correct” Master’s degree theses, it’s likely to continue for some time to come.

    Thank goodness for blogs like yours which call into question fixed positions on educational matters.


  2. Paul — It’s really hard to keep track of the literacy/illiteracy research, particularly when the study design processes are so different. But, clearly, the study on adult literacy is completely unrealistic. I mean, our high school students become adults. Surely, some of them are in the IALS database.

    Which suggests to me that the questions on the adult literacy survey were rigged. For example, in the “Canada’s Shame” article, it clearly states that two of the questions involved being able to read and understand instructions on a medicine bottle or to be able to identify chemical components. I have two graduate degrees and, if asked if I always understood what was on my medicine bottles, would probably say “sometimes” “disagree.” And, I say that because if they used multiple choice, they would have used a Likert Scale, strongly agree, agree, sometimes, disagree or strongly disagree.

    Now,I realize those items are not the only criteria used, but IMO those types of questions are suspect.

    Thanks for the kind words. It is a challenge just to be able to find articles on education and educational research. From now on, I am going to put up shorter pieces as though I were an education aggregator. So, if you notice anything, just e-mail me the URL. Others can simply use my Contact Form on the header bar.


  3. Both things can be true at once as explained by TDSB over at Educhatter. The literacy data includes all Canadians. The OECD data is a test of 15 year olds. 15 year olds were chosen because by 16 many students have dropped out in many countries skewing the results. The literacy people are also not talking about anything close to real illiteracy. They mean people who have any difficulty whatsoever reading an insurance policy for example. There is sadly, among well meaning people in adult literacy, a “moving goal posts” problem. I was very active in the adult literacy movement in the 1980s and 19% functional illiteracy was accepted.

    Most illiterates in Canada are: older, hinterland, resource extraction, or ghetto poor and members of racialized communities that have either been historically marginalized or recent immigrants from low education nations.


  4. Doug — You say “historically marginalized or recent immigrants from low income nations.” Not true in the StatsCan study. They specifically say that only those with English as a first language were part of the database. Moving goal posts is right. I spent many years in this field as well. Reading a medicine bottle or an insurance policy has nothing to do with functional illiteracy, which as you must know if the same as Grade 6/7 performance equivalent. Either the definition of functional has to change or the definition of poverty. Basic literacy is the Grade 3/4 level. There are no tests above Grade 12 and most people read at the Grade 8/9 level because only vocabulary changes beyond that point.


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