Fall Institute 2011: Background


The initial IALS (1994) was carried out through the collaboration and cooperation of governments, statistical agencies and research centres and included seven industrialized countries which over the next four years rose to 23.

IALS changed the way literacy is defined, from an either/or state to a continuum of skills that adults use to accomplish increasingly complex tasks. It distinguished different kinds of reading – prose and document – and included math (numeracy) and problem-solving, extending the boundaries of what was traditionally considered “literacy”. It applied a new statistical methodology that allowed a direct measure of performance to assess skill and ability instead of proxy measures such as years of schooling or self-report which had been used in the past.

IALS offered the first internationally comparative performance survey of adult skills at a population level. For Canada, it provided comparable data across provinces and territories which had never before been available.

IALS and subsequent surveys based on the same theories have had a strong impact on government policy and on the field of adult literacy in participating countries.  Findings have been used to measure literacy in specific areas such as health and to underpin local assessment frameworks; in Canada, they have also been applied to the creation of tools and curricula. But in every country, the meaning assigned to IALS findings and their impacts have been closely linked to history and context. Understanding the meaning and significance of these similarities and differences can help us improve our own policy and practice.

Some of the world’s most knowledgeable experts on international literacy and skills assessment, including a leader in developing the original survey, will work with us for three days to explain the theory behind and history of IALS and help us analyze its benefits and challenges.


Topics include:

How was IALS designed and adapted over time?

How has IALS been taken up in policy to date?

How has IALS influenced literacy programming and instruction?


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