Research Note: The Rate at Which Education Increases Literacy Skill

Not all of DataAngel’s analysis ends up in published reports. Some of this material is nonetheless useful in that it offers unique insights into matters of crucial importance to policy. The following research note highlights the rate at which additional education adds to the stock of literacy skill supply.

Research shows that education is the most important determinant of literacy skill (Desjardins, 2004) and that increases in average literacy scores over time explain 55% of differences in the rates of growth of GDP and labour productivity over the long run (Coulombe, Tremblay and Marchand, 2004). So policy makers have an interest in the rate at which rising levels of education are adding to Canada’s literacy skill supply.

The following chart uses data for the 2011 OECD PIAAC adult skill assessment for Canada to estimate the relationship between years of education and literacy.

The chart below reveals a strong linear relationship between the two variables.

In the 2011 PIAAC file, each additional year of education adds an average of 9.1 points.

This relationship suggests that, on average, it takes roughly 5.5 additional years of education to move up a level on the PIAAC literacy proficiency scale. Thus, even at Canada’s relatively rapid rate of increase in years of education, it will take several decades for the population average literacy skill to rise from the bottom of Level 3, where it currently sits, to the bottom of Level 4. In this sense, adult literacy skill upgrading is significantly more efficient, as it can generate this level of skill gain in as little as 30 hours of focused instruction.

This increase in additional points per year of education is slightly lower than the 10.2 points observed in the 2003 IALSS data for Canada. This finding is likely the joint product of higher levels of skill loss in the 2011 study and of higher proportions of immigrants coming from less efficient education systems.

Readers should also keep several things in mind when interpreting these data.

First, the observed skill level at every education level reflects significant amounts of skill gain and loss that occurs after graduation. Because there has been more skill loss than gain over the past three decades, skills observed at the point at which the highest credential was obtained, and the average literacy skill gain per additional year of education, would be higher.

Second, readers should remember that these average score gain obscure significant variation in scores at every level of education.

Notwithstanding these caveats, these data make it clear that Canada cannot rely on increasing post-secondary education levels to fill the growing shortage of workers with Level 3 and above literacy skill. Significant investments in adult literacy skill upgrading will be needed. At $1000 per learner, the cost of adult literacy skill upgrading is low enough for employers to fund themselves. Given the enormous economic and social  costs of Canada’s growing literacy skill shortages, a case can be made for governments to subsidize the cost of literacy skill upgrading.


T. Scott Murray is a retired senior manager from Statistics Canada and President, DataAngel Policy Research Incorporated, a global specialist in education, skills and productivity.

T. Scott Murray
DataAngel Policy Research
Mobile: +1 613 240 8433


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