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International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS)

1. Overview

IALS collected:
  • Background assessments
  • Literacy assessments

The 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) represented a first attempt to assess the literacy skills of entire adult populations in a framework that provided data comparable across cultures and languages. This collaborative project was designed to inform both education and labor market policy and program development activities in participating countries. The international portion of the study was carried out under the auspices of an International Steering Committee chaired by Canada, with each participating country holding a seat on the committee along with representatives from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), European communities, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In the United States, IALS is the fourth assessment of adult literacy funded by the federal government and conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The three previous efforts were (1) the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (see NALS chapter); (2) the Department of Labor’s (DOL) 1990 Workplace Literacy Survey; and (3) the 1985 Young Adult Literacy Assessment (funded as an adjunct to the National Assessment of Educational Progress—see NAEP chapter). In order to maximize the comparability of estimates across countries, IALS chose to adopt the National Adult Literacy Survey methodology and scales. Literacy was defined along three dimensions—prose, document, and quantitative. These were designed to capture an ordered set of information-processing skills and strategies that adults use to accomplish a diverse range of literacy tasks encountered in everyday life. The background data collected in IALS provide a context for understanding the ways in which various characteristics are associated with demonstrated literacy skills.

IALS was originally conducted in eight countries (Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, French- and German-speaking Switzerland, and the United States). A second phase was subsequently conducted in five additional countries or territories (Australia, Flemish-speaking Belgium, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Northern Ireland), and in a final phase included an additional nine countries. This chapter focuses on the first phase, in which the United States participated.


To (1) develop scales that would permit comparisons of the literacy performance of adults (16 and older) with a wide range of abilities; (2) if such an assessment could be created, describe and compare the demonstrated literacy skills of adults in different countries.



Each IALS country was given a set of model administration manuals and survey instruments as well as guidelines for adapting and translating the survey instruments. IALS instruments consisted of three parts: (1) a background questionnaire, which collected demographic information about respondents; (2) a set of core literacy tasks, which screened out respondents with very limited literacy skills; and (3) a main booklet of literacy tasks, used to calibrate literacy levels.

Background Questionnaire. The background questionnaire collected information on languages spoken or read; parents’ educational attainment and employment; labor force experiences—employment status, recent labor force experiences, and occupation; reading and writing at work and looking for work; participation in adult education classes—courses taken, financial support, purpose; reading and writing in daily life (excluding work or school); family literacy—children’s reading habits, the household’s access to reading materials, hours spent watching television; and household information—total income and sources of income. The background questionnaire was to be administered in about 20 minutes.

Literacy Assessment–Core Literacy Tasks and Main Literacy Tasks. One hundred and fourteen tasks were grouped into three scales and divided into seven blocks (labeled A through G), which in turn were compiled into seven test booklets (numbered 1 through 7). Each booklet contained three blocks of tasks and was designed to take about 45 minutes to complete. Respondents began the cognitive part of the assessment by performing a set of six “core” tasks. Only those who were able to perform at least two of the six core tasks correctly (93 percent of respondents) were given the full assessment.


The first phase of data collection for IALS was conducted during the autumn of 1994 in Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland (French and German-speaking cantons), and the United States. Data were collected from a second group of countries or territories—Australia, Flemish-speaking Belgium, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Northern Ireland—in 1995–96. Data were collected from a third group of countries in 1997–98. No second administration is planned.

Data Availability

Information on public-use data for IALS is available at Information on restricted-use data for IALS is available at