IALS is the International Adult Literacy Survey. It was sponsored by the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in partnership with Statistics Canada and the American Educational Testing Services. IALS is commonly used to describe both the original survey conducted in the mid-1990s and the subsequent survey conducted in 2003. A third survey, PIAAC (Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies) was conducted in 2012.



IALS measured the literacy proficiency of participants when using prose, document, numeracy and problem-solving skills. It developed a five-level scale with a total of 500 points. The IALS five-level scale of adult literacy is described in the OECD and Statistics Canada report, Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey (2000, p. XI):


  • Level 1 indicates persons with very poor skills, where the individual may, for example, be unable to determine the correct amount of medicine to give a child from information printed on the package.
  • Level 2 respondents can deal only with material that is simple, clearly laid out, and in which the tasks involved are not too complex. It denotes a weak level of skill, but more hidden than Level 1. It identifies people who can read, but test poorly. They may have developed coping skills to manage everyday literacy demands, but their low level of proficiency makes it difficult for them to face novel demands, such as learning new job skills.
  • Level 3 is considered a suitable minimum for coping with the demands of everyday life and work in a complex, advanced society. It denotes roughly the skill level required for successful secondary school completion and college entry. Like higher levels, it requires the ability to integrate several sources of information and solve more complex problems.
  • Levels 4 and 5 describe respondents who demonstrate command of higher-order information processing skills.


According to IALS, approximately 48 per cent of working age adults in Canada have literacy skills below Level 3 (Statistics Canada, 2005). This means that nearly half of Canadian adults aged 16 to 65 years are reading below the minimum recommended IALS level of literacy skills that enable Canadians to fully participate in a knowledge-based society.



For more information on IALS, consult these references:

Grenier, S., Jones, S., Strucker, J., Murray, T. S., Gervais, G., and Brink, S. (2008). Learning Literacy in Canada: Evidence from the International Survey of Reading Skills. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, HRSDC, Government of Canada.

Kirsch, I. (2001). The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS): Understanding what was measured. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

OECD & Statistics Canada. (2005). Learning a Living: First Results of Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Paris & Ottawa: OECD Publishing.

OECD & Statistics Canada. (2000). Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Statistics Canada. (2005). Building on our Competencies: Canadian Results of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey 2003. Ottawa: HRSDC, Government of Canada.

Strucker, J., Yanmamoto, K., and Kirsch, I. (2007). The relationship of the component skills of reading to IALS performance: Tipping points and five classes of adult literacy learners. Cambridge: Harvard Graduate School of Education, National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

IALS and Read Forward

While there are divergent perspectives about the relevance of the IALS framework for assessing reading at the program level, Read Forward chose to use it for three reasons. The OECD surveys have influenced adult literacy related policy in most Canadian jurisdictions. The IALS framework is used by governments and the OECD for international comparison of labour market skills. It is aligned with the Government of Canada’s Essential Skills Framework.

Read Forward is primarily for adults reading below IALS Level 3, though it does not cover the full range of IALS Levels 1 to 3. Below mid-Level 1 is not included because it requires such instructor assistance as reading the test questions out loud. The first part of Level 3 is included so that learners can see their improvement toward and into Level 3.

The range of reading skills along the continuum of IALS levels is very wide. This makes it difficult to accurately demonstrate reading improvement because there are no small steps, only large ones, from one level to the next. This is problematic for adult literacy programs because learners tend to make incremental improvements in their reading over time. Read Forward elected to break the first three levels of IALS into six smaller segments that could be more easily measured in an adult literacy education setting, thus producing a practical resource for assessment and teaching and learning reading.

ARB and Read Forward

The Alberta Reading Benchmarks (ARB) are a set of standards that measure reading skills for adults. They were created as an outcome-based framework for adult reading in an effort to contribute to a more coordinated adult literacy education system for Alberta. The Government of Alberta funded the development of the ARB for literacy and essential skills programs to use with adult learners as part of the government’s plan for improving adult literacy in Alberta.

The ARB describes what readers know and can do at successive levels as they develop and expand their reading capacity. Like Read Forward, the ARB levels are loosely referenced to the first three levels of IALS, and both use the same design based on the IALS theoretical framework. Read Forward and the ARB are compatible measures for reading skills.

For more information on ARB, visit