Archived — Digital Literacy and Essential Skills

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Submitted by Ontario Literacy Coalition 2010–07–13 13:34:30 EDT
Theme(s): Building Digital Skills


The Ontario Literacy Coalition (OLC) makes adult learning opportunities possible by gathering data and intelligence, cultivating partnerships, building capacity and advising policy. We are currently focusing on four main strategies: learning for work, learning for families, learning for life, and building effective systems and practices.

There is unquestionably a need for a focus on the digital economy in Canada. However, without looking at digital literacy and the broader picture of adult literacy and essential skills, the ability to implement a digital strategy will be compromised.

Including digital literacy in a broader adult literacy strategy will create a culture of learning, with adults voluntarily seeking out training opportunities as they become more comfortable with basic concepts. This in turn can create the workforce Canada needs to fill the jobs of 21st century.


Digital Literacy and Essential Skills

Adult literacy and essential skills are about more than just reading and writing. They are about the full participation in the economy and society about being able to give your children the best start possible in life; about creating a workforce that allows Canada to take full advantage of its numerous strengths; about civic engagement. And in the 21st century, the digital component is more important than ever.

Having said that, a pre–requisite for digital literacy is literacy in a more general sense. Based on the most recent available data, 47.7% of Canadians score either at level 1 or 2 on the 5–level prose literacy scale, and do not have the literacy and essential skills to fully participate in the economy.1 Scoring at these levels suggests that individuals "have not yet mastered the minimum foundation of literacy needed to attain the higher levels of performance."2 Scores at level 3 or above, on the other hand, are correlated with "increased civic participation, increased economic success and independence, and enhanced opportunities for lifelong learning and personal literacy."3

Adult literacy and essentials skills are the first steps in creating a more competitive, productive economy and society. Without first building literacy and essential skills, a strategy to develop skills for the digital economy is unlikely to succeed.

However, we were pleased to note that the consultation paper recognized that "essential skills, such as literacy, are also strongly connected with digital abilities, and improving essential skill will be a key part in assuring that Canadians have adequate skills."4 In fact, we would argue that increasingly, digital skills cannot be separated from literacy and essential skills.

According to Statistics Canada, there is a direct correlation between an individual's level of literacy and their participation in adult education or other learning activities. Across Canada, "around 70% of adults with the literacy scores at the highest level participated in adult education and learning. However, at 20%, this proportion was much lower for those at the lowest literacy level."5 In other words, as basic skills are upgraded and adults feel increasingly comfortable, they will actively seek out opportunities to learn new skills and upgrade existing skills.

As such, the OLC recommend that the federal government:

  • Focus on basic literacy and essential skills as a starting point, with the end goal of creating a workforce ready to compete in the digital economy;
  • Consider the capacity of the adult literacy field to provide necessary digital skills training and the financial support that existing organizations will need to take on digital training;
  • Build on the work the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES) has been doing in working with provinces, delivery agencies, and provincial and national literacy organizations; and
  • Incorporate digital skills into basic literacy and essential skills programs and workplace training programs

Improving Canadians' Literacy and Essential Skills

In 2016, Ontario alone will be facing a drastic mismatch of skills and opportunities: 450,000 unskilled workers will be looking for jobs, but will not have the necessary skills to fill the almost one million vacancies that will exist.6 Clearly, we will be suffering from a gap between the skills Canadians have and the skills the 21st century economy requires. While we might expect that employers would be willing to invest in employee training to meet their Human Resource needs and to increase productivity, Canadian firms spend proportionately less on workforce training than employers in the US.7 Among the reasons employers cite is a lack of government assistance and a lack of awareness around training options available to them.8

To remedy this, the OLC recommends the federal government:

  • Explore options to assist businesses that would like to implement workplace training programs. This can be done in a number of ways — not all of which have to involve a significant outlay of funds — such as:
    • creating an information clearing house and single point of contact for employers looking for information;
    • assisting delivery organizations in reaching out to businesses; or,
    • implementing workplace training tax credits.
  • Increase awareness around existing workplace training programs, and how they can be tailored to a business's individual needs.
  • Partner with provincial governments, delivery organizations, labour, sector councils, and business to expand the reach of existing workplace literacy and training programs.

A National Literacy Strategy

While the number of Canadians struggling with low literacy is appallingly high, what is more worrisome is that there has been no progress in skills development between 1994 and 2003. While the proportion stayed the same, the absolute "number of working age Canadians with low skills has increased from 8 to 9 million due to population growth."9 One over–arching reason for this lack of progress is the lack of a coordinated national strategy around adult literacy and essential skills. Funding is split between provincial and federal governments; some provinces have multiple ministries responsible for adult literacy and essential skills; and programs are delivered by a variety of agencies — nonprofits, school boards, colleges, and businesses among them.

As a result, there is a patchwork of approaches, programs, and delivery systems across the country, which has made it difficult to create a rational system of programs for adult learners. While we applaud the effort to consider digital literacy in a national context, without a national strategy, digital literacy is subject to the same problems adult literacy is facing.

The focus on digital literacy and the effort to create a national strategy around it is the perfect opportunity to create a broader, national adult literacy strategy, as many of the organizations that will be providing and coordinating digital literacy programs will be the same as in the adult literacy field.

As such, the OLC recommends the federal government:

  • Create a national adult literacy strategy, with digital literacy as a key component.


There is unquestionably a need for a focus on digital literacy in Canada. However, without looking at the broader picture of adult literacy and essential skills, the ability to implement a digital literacy strategy will be compromised.

Including digital literacy in a broader adult literacy strategy will create a culture of learning, with adults voluntarily seeking out training opportunities as they become more comfortable with basic concepts. This in turn can create the workforce Canada needs to fill the jobs of 21st century.


1 Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Statistics Canada. Building our Competencies: Canadian results of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey. 2005.

2 Strucker, J., Yamomoto, K. Quoted in Building on our Competencies.

3 Kirsch, I., et al., Murray, T.S. et al., Tuijnman, A. Quoted in Building on our Competencies.

4 Industry Canada, Improving Canada's Digital Advantage: Strategies for Sustainable Prosperity. Consultation Paper on a Digital Economy Strategy for Canada. Page 32.

5 Statistics Canada. The Daily: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 — International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey: Building on our competencies (accessed June 30, 2010)

6 Miner, Rick. People Without Jobs, Jobs Without People: Ontario's Labour Market Future. February 2010. Page 11.

7 Grant and Hughes, 2007. Quoted in Miner. Page 16

8 Conference Board of Canada, 2007. Quoted in Miner. Page 16

9 The Advisory Committee on Literacy and Essential Skills. Achieving National Goals through a Comprehensive PanCanadian Literacy Strategy. November 20, 2005. Page 3. Toward a Fully Literate Canada.

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Suggested URL: The Ontario Literacy Coalition Website


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