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.