Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Winter 1994 - Volume 2 Number 2
The Myth of Illiteracy: How Not to Debate Educational Reforms
by Diane E. Meaghan and François R. Casas

Throughout the educational community and among those members of the public who are concerned about education, there is much debate about literacy. Strident critics would have us believe that high school graduates are almost uniformly illiterate, innumerate and unprepared to meet either the vocational demands of the current labour market or the academic demands of colleges and universities. Such school bashers, however, commonly fail to understand that literacy is a social construct whose definition has changed over time, often as a result of fundamental economic restructuring. To address the complex issue of literacy requires a preliminary discussion of its social meaning.

Early this century, the largest proportion of jobs required little or no reading or writing skills and many industrialized nations would have defined literacy as the ability to sign one's name (the image of an individual affixing an “X” on the signature line was a familiar one). In contrast, today's concept of literacy is rooted in a complex set of tasks. Parallel to the changing view of literacy have been the reasons for promoting it. For a long time, especially in Europe, achieving literacy was seen as a way of participating in social life; today, literacy is more likely to be regarded as essential to the individual's economic betterment and to the economy's performance (Benton and Noyelle, 1992).

The most common measure of literacy until recently has been the level of educational attainment. On this basis, one could conclude that Canada has made great strides since the percentage of the population 15 years and over with less than grade 9 education - taken to be the minimum indicator of literacy - declined from 31.4% in 1971 to 14.2% in 1991 for females, and from 33.2% in 1971 to 13.6% in 1991 for males (Columbo, 1993). While such an approach has the advantage of data availability, the resulting measure of literacy has serious limitations. For example, school systems are too different to compare the content of grade levels in different nations. Only 8 percent of Canadians who completed high school fall in the lowest levels of reading skills, and over 80 percent of those who attended universities or community colleges perform at the highest level.

More significantly, while there exists a strong correlation between literacy proficiency and educational attainment the use of arbitrary cutoff grade levels to define illiteracy is fraught with difficulties. The 1989 Statistics Canada Survey of Literacy Skills Used in Daily Activities recently quoted in this journal by Kleiman and Miles revealed that as many as 39 percent of those without any schooling - traditionally labelled basic illiterates - possess some literacy skills, including 9% who have a wide range of reading skills. Conversely, among those with at least grade 9 education and who are assumed to be functional literates, as many as 31 percent are false literates who perform at the level of functional illiterates.

It has been suggested that the educational cutoff point for functional literacy should be revised to the fourth year of secondary school. An alternative approach has been to use standardized reading test scores to assess literacy. However, while these scores may be more meaningful than educational attainment data, there are serious difficulties with the type of tests traditionally used and with the nature of learning itself. For example, individuals read much better - up to four grade levels higher - when exposed to familiar materials, making any test subject to considerable bias.

Recognition of these difficulties has led to a new definition of literacy which recognizes the higher-order abilities that separate individuals who are barely able to read and write from those who are able to use their skills to function successfully in the workplace, in the community and at home. According to UNESCO, “a person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his/her group and community and also for enabling him/her to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his/her own and the community's development” (UNESCO, 1962).

A 1987 Southam News survey of 2398 Canadian adults,5 based on the 1985 American National Association of Educational Progress survey, was among the first attempts to use a specially designed test to measure literacy skills. The survey made sensational headlines by drawing attention to an alleged illiteracy rate of 24%, placing Canada behind Latin America and the Caribbean where the illiteracy rate - as reported by UNESCO based on other criteria - stood at 17%. However, these results were based on the responses to some fourteen items in a sixty-item survey and most items were of dubious significance, having been chosen as representative of the reading skills required for all Canadians by a panel of twenty-four mostly professional individuals with middle-class values. (Creative Research Group, 1987). In addition, the study assumed that literacy could be viewed as a fixed point on a single scale.

The 1989 Statistics Canada survey of 9,500 individuals aged 16 to 69 used a more sophisticated scoring system to distinguish four levels of literacy: 7% of the sample performed at level 1 of literacy (i.e., had difficulty with printed materials and identified themselves as unable to read); 9% could use printed materials for limited purposes and recognized themselves as having difficulty with common reading materials; 22% could use printed materials in a variety of situations provided they were simple, clearly laid-out and involved simple tasks (such individuals tended to avoid situations requiring reading); and sixty-two percent met most everyday reading demands and possessed a wide range of reading skills.

Since defining literacy is akin to defining humour or kindness, it is hard to understand the insistence by some to declare a national emergency. Nor is it possible to invoke a rising trend in illiteracy since it is only very recently (and only in two or three countries, including Canada) that serious attempts have been expended to quantify this problem. If the severity of the problem is still in the process of being assessed, how can remedies be prescribed for it? Indeed, in one of the few attempts to assess changes in reading skills of today's students compared to those in the past, Michael Kibby investigated data from three sources: then-and-now studies conducted by individual researchers contrasting American students between 1845 and 1976, test restandardization data undertaken by publishers of standardized tests to revise such tests, and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data from 1971, 1975, 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1990. All available data debunked the conventional wisdom asserting that there has been a decline in reading abilities of students in grades 1 to 8 in the past 150 years. Similarly, secondary students today read better than students in the 1950s and earlier, though there may have been little progress since the 1970s. Professor Kibby concludes that “unqualified statements proclaiming today's high-schoolers less literate than those of the past are totally erroneous.” (For example, four of the ten items on one version of the survey form dealt with setting up a meeting room. See Fagan, 1990.)

Not only are there grounds to question the magnitude of the illiteracy problem, but there is also a serious misconception surrounding the nature of this problem. One of the major findings of the Statistics Canada survey is that illiteracy is not a problem confined to a group of young people who have dropped out of school, but one which also includes a significant share of the older employed workforce. The data indicate that literacy declines over time, a phenomenon attributed to the insufficient use by an individual of her/his literacy skills. Focusing on the reform of the school system in an attempt to reduce the dropout rate therefore leaves these adults disenfranchised and particularly at risk at a time of accelerating technical change and economic restructuring aimed at reducing costs by shedding workers in the midst of a tenacious recession. More than half of the 16-64 population, including one out of five workers aged 35 to 54, had changed jobs - an average of 3.3 times each - during the two-year period of the survey, lending support to the view that changes in the world economy have accelerated training needs, particularly among those already in the workforce. It is thus imperative to view secondary school restructuring as only one component of the remedy to illiteracy.

Finally, it is necessary to question the hypothesis that responsibility for the youth illiteracy problem may be laid entirely at the doorstep of our schools, for such a premise completely overlooks the impact of recent demographic trends reflected in the composition of our population at large as well as the student body in our schools and our postsecondary institutions. In the fall of 1992, over 47,000 young women and men registered as first-year students at Ontario's fourteen universities, including 38,326 who had graduated from an Ontario high school that same year.

Of these students, 16.4% reported a mother tongue other than English, with nearly 1 out of 4 registrants at Toronto's three universities falling in this group (the proportion was 1 out of 3 at the University of Toronto; see Kibby, 1993). According to Ron Chopowick (1991), 69% of full-time students at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology are landed immigrants or first generation Canadians who have been in Canada less than 10 years (OUAC, 1992). The same report notes that 38.8% of first year students at Seneca College were born in other countries and 32.5% do not speak English at home. The 1991 Census reveals that across Canada, 7.7% of the population reported speaking a language other than English or French at home; this proportion was almost 11% in Ontario and in excess of 20% in Metropolitan Toronto.

With this kind of demographic picture of Canadian schools, colleges and universities, it is hard to understand why quality education reformers insist on castigating our school system, rather recognizing the impact of immigration trends and debating appropriate solutions. Furthermore, a study conducted by the Canadian Teachers' Federation revealed that most young people classified as functionally illiterate in the 1987 Southam News survey were born into families with limited educational background and suffered from a high incidence of hearing and sight problems, as well as long term illnesses (Gillis, 1990). This suggests that the educational progress of certain subgroups should be closely followed rather than attempting to resolve the problem through more generalized education reforms that will not serve the special needs of those clearly at risk.

None of the above should be interpreted as a call for complacency. Among the most glaring deficiencies of our school system is its failure to treat all children equitably and to provide support to those whose needs are the greatest. Without the infusion of adequate human and financial resources, it is certain that children from ethnic and racial minorities, recent immigrants, females, as well as those from lower socioeconomic groups, will continue to receive inferior educational services designed to sustain and reinforce the existing income and social disparities by channelling these children away from higher education, better incomes and personal and political empowerment.

As noted by K. Osborne (1988) working-class students are being labelled, streamed and programmed, based on alleged aptitudes and abilities (or disabilities), in preparation for a stratified workplace. The lower retention rate for female students relative to males in high school mathematics and science courses provides convincing evidence of the failure of the system to overcome ingrained gender biases. As well, the system delivers a curriculum which is still profoundly influenced by its white, Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian and masculine origins, disseminating a capitalist ethic of individualism and market competitiveness, which serves best those from middle and upper income strata with a stable and supportive family environment, while leaving women, working class children and minority groups marginalized.

These problems have prompted those interested in democratizing education to call for a non-racist, non-sexist common curriculum with mixed ability teaching which is accessible to all students and cooperatively determined by the school and the community. Such a curriculum would be designed to ensure that students learn how to learn as a lifelong project, with an emphasis on participation, communication, problem-solving and critical thinking, and that they comprehend that knowledge begins with a personal and local understanding of self and community which is then expanded to address global issues of both the past and the future.

Our educational system is simultaneously faced with numerous challenges which endanger the quality of the services it delivers. Some of the problems are exogenous in nature: a prolonged worldwide recession and past excesses by governments at all levels have precipitated a severe budgetary crunch which threatens to leave many school boards with inadequate financing. This is happening at a time when a furious pace of technological change and the globalization of the international economy necessitate a radically updated curriculum which is not oriented toward narrowly defined and antiquated job education and training, but which instead emphasizes the acquisition of generic and portable skills rather than specific technical skills which will be obsolete by the time a student graduates.

On the other hand, while the new breed of education reformers correctly identify some deficiencies in our school system, the back-to-basics panacea they recommend is a throwback to a past in which only a small elite received a premium education and graduated from high school. Calls to emphasize the three Rs are loudly applauded, but the public would revolt if the system were to revert to its elitist past. Similarly, while we should all support the call for increased accountability, we must avoid resorting to the overly simplistic measuring rod represented by standardized tests.

Finally, we should not burden our teachers and our schools with the blame for less than stellar education results when the social environment in which many of our children are living, particularly in very early years, is a major contributing factor to such outcomes (Crane, 1993). Instead, we should heed the advice of L.C. Stedman (1993) to set aside undue concern over the decline of our schools and avoid becoming prisoners of a pointless nostalgia, while simultaneously recognizing that fundamental school reform is warranted.


Benton, L., and T. Noyelle (1992). Adult Illiteracy and Economic Performance. Paris: OECD.

Colombo, J.R. (1993). The Canadian Global Almanac 1994. Toronto: Macmillan Canada.

UNESCO (1962). Statement of the Interim Committee of Experts on Literacy. Paris: UNESCO.

The Creative Research Group (1987). Literacy in Canada: A Research Report Ottawa: Southam Communications.

Fagan, W. (1990). “Misconceptions about Adult Illiteracy.” The ATA Magazine . 70(4), May/June: 26-30.

Kibby, M.W. (1993). “What reading teachers should know about reading proficiency in the U.S.” Journal of Reading . 37(1), September: 28-40.

OUAC (1992). Admission Data System Report. Ontario Universities' Application Centre.

Chopowick R. (1991). Survey of First-Year Students in Full-Time Postsecondary Programs.

Gillis, G. (1990). “Illiteracy in Canada,” The ATA Magazine . 70(4), May/June.

Osborne, K. (1988). Educating Citizens: A Democratic Socialist Agenda for Canadian Education. Toronto: Our Schools/Our Selves Education Foundation.

Crane, D. (1993). “Good Health is Determined by the Sum of Society's Parts.” The Toronto Star. 17 July.

Stedman, L.C. (1993). “The Condition of Education: Why School Reformers Are on the Right Track.” Phi Delta Kappan. 75(3), November: 215-25.

François R. Casas is Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto; Diane Meaghan teaches in the School of Liberal Studies at Seneca College, Toronto, Ontario.