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Highlights From the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL)


The Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL) is an international comparative study conducted in 2003 to provide participating countries with information about the skills of their adult populations. ALL measured the literacy and numeracy skills of a nationally representative sample of 16- to 65-year olds from six participating countries (Bermuda, Canada, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States). Literacy is defined as the knowledge and skills needed to understand and use information from text and other written formats. Numeracy applies to the knowledge and skills required to manage mathematical demands of diverse situations. A second phase of ALL, in which additional countries are collecting data, is currently under way. This will allow for a greater number of country comparisons.

ALL builds upon earlier national and international studies of adult literacy.1 Information from ALL addresses questions such as:

  • What is the distribution of literacy and numeracy skills among American adults? How do these skill distributions compare to those of other countries?
  • What is the relationship between these literacy skills and the economic, social, and personal characteristics of individuals? For example: Do different age or linguistic groups manifest different skill levels? Do males and females perform differently? At what kinds of jobs do people at various literacy levels work? What wages do they earn? How do adults who have completed different levels of education perform?
  • What is the relationship between these skills and the economic and social characteristics of nations? For example, how do the skills of the adult labor force of a country match with areas of the economy that are growing?

The purpose of this Issue Brief is to provide selected initial findings from ALL, so the Issue Brief will address only some of these questions. For further results from ALL, see Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (Statistics Canada and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 2005). A technical report for ALL, which describes in detail the procedures used in the design, data collection, quality control, and analysis for the study, is also forthcoming.

1 An assessment of young adult literacy was conducted in the United States in 1985, an assessment of the literacy of job seekers in 1991, a National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) in 1992, and a follow-up to NALS, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), was conducted in 2003. ALL is the direct successor to the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), which was conducted in three phases (1994, 1996, and 1998) in 20 nations, including the United States. IALS measured adultsí prose, document, and quantitative literacy skills. Prose literacy items are made up of continuous texts (formed of sentences organized into paragraphs). Document literacy items are made up of noncontinuous texts (tables, schedules, charts, graphs, or other texts with clearly defined rows and columns). In IALS, the quantitative literacy scale was made up of continuous and noncontinuous texts in which respondents had to identify and perform one or more arithmetic operations. This scale was replaced with the numeracy scale in ALL, so that change over time can be measured only for prose literacy and document literacy. The numeracy scale was designed to be broader than the quantitative literacy scale, going beyond applying arithmetic skills to a wider range of mathematical skills (e.g., use of number sense, estimation, statistics). An additional skill area, problem solving, was assessed in other participating countries in ALL in 2003; however, the United States did not collect this information. For results in problem solving, see Statistics Canada and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (2005).