Literacy and Essential Skills
This section provides an overview of how skills are described, how skill levels are determined in Canada and Ontario and how learning is assessed in The LBS Program through the Ontario Adult Literacy Curriculum Framework (OALCF).
Defining Skills in Canada
Through extensive research, the Government of Canada, along with other national and international agencies, has identified and validated key literacy and Essential Skills. These skills are used in nearly every job and throughout daily life in different ways and at varying levels of complexity.
Employment and Social Development Canada’s (ESDC), Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES) defines literacy and Essential Skills as
- needed for work, learning and life
- the foundation for learning all other skills
- skills that help people evolve with their jobs and adapt to workplace change
Literacy is much more than just reading, writing and counting skills.
Literacy is a means of identifying, understanding, interpreting, creating and communicating in our digital, information-rich and fast-changing world. (adapted from UNESCO, n.d.).
Literacy is “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential”. (OECD, 2016. The Survey of Adult Skills)
Literacy traditionally includes the following four skills:
Reading refers to reading material that is in the form of sentences or paragraphs. It generally involves reading notes, letters, memos, manuals, specifications, regulations, books, reports or journals.
- print and non-print media (for example, text on computer screens and ATMs)
- paragraph-length text in charts, tables and graphs
- forms and labels if they contain at least one paragraph
Writing refers to all kinds of writing from single-word entries and lists to complex reports, manuals and literature.
- writing text and writing in documents (for example, filling in forms)
- non-paper-based writing (for example, typing on a computer)
Document Use refers to tasks that involve a variety of information displays in which words, numbers, icons and other visual characteristics (e.g. line, colour, shape) are given meaning by their spatial arrangement. For example, graphs, lists, tables, maps, blueprints, schematics, drawings, signs and labels are documents used in the world of work and elsewhere.
Document Use includes
- print and non-print media (for example, computer screen or microfiche documents, equipment gauges, clocks and flags)
- reading/interpreting and writing/completing/producing of documents-these two uses of documents often occur simultaneously as part of the same task, e.g., completing a form, checking off items on a list of tasks, plotting information on a graph, and entering information on an activity schedule
Numeracy refers to the use of numbers in all the ways we use numbers daily and thinking in quantitative terms. It includes such things as scheduling and logistics, budgeting, and telling time.
Essential Skills include the four skills associated with literacy, as well as the following five skills:
Digital Technology (Skills)
Digital technology refers to the skills needed to understand and use digital systems, tools and applications, and to process digital information.
People use digital technology skills to input, access, analyze, organize, create and communicate information and ideas using computers, software, point-of-sale equipment, e-mail, podcasts, web applications, smart phones and other digital devices.
Thinking includes six different types of interconnected cognitive functions:
- problem solving
- decision making
- critical thinking
- job task planning and organizing
- significant use of memory
- finding information
Oral Communication pertains primarily to the use of speech to give and exchange thoughts and information by people in an occupational group or other group settings. In some situations, American Sign Language (ASL) or specific sets of hand signals substitute for oral language.
Working with Others
Working with Others examines the extent to which people work with others to carry out their tasks. Do they have to work co-operatively with others? Do they have to have the self-discipline to meet work targets while working alone? This can involve teams working face-to-face, in person over distance, or remotely via telephone and digital technology.
Continuous Learning refers to an ongoing process of acquiring skills and knowledge. More and more jobs require continuous upgrading, and that all workers must continue learning in order to keep or to grow with their jobs. Likewise, the world continues to change and people need to keep learning to keep up with daily life.
Associated skills include
- knowing how to learn
- understanding one’s own learning style
- knowing how to gain access to a variety of materials, resources and learning opportunities
Levels of Complexity
Levels of complexity are a tool that measures the skills needed to perform a task. Example tasks for workers in a specific job are assigned levels ranging from 1 (basic task) to 4 or 5 (advanced task). The levels may vary based on the requirements of the workplace.
Complexity levels were developed to address the differences in the level of skills needed to do different kinds of tasks for different purposes.
For example, a researcher uses more complex writing skills to write a research report than a bricklayer needs to write estimate sheets and complete work forms. A lawyer has to write more formal letters than someone writing a personal letter to a friend.
The complexity level for writing depends on factors such as
Skills in LBS – Introduction to the Ontario Adult Literacy Curriculum Framework
Principles of Adult Learning
Malcolm Knowles proposed 5 assumptions about adult learners in 1968:
- As a person matures, self-concept moves from dependent toward self-directed
- An adult accumulates experience, which is a rich resource for learning
- Readiness to learn is closely related to developmental tasks of an individual’s social role (parent, spouse, worker, citizen, etc.)
- There is a change in time perspective as people mature – from future application to immediacy of application; thus, an adult is more problem-centred than subject-centred
- Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors rather than external ones
Training for adults should address their needs
- to know
- to be self-directing
- to have their unique experiences taken into account
- to gear learning to the person’s readiness to learn
- to organize learning around life tasks or life problems
- to tap into intrinsic motivations
The Ontario Adult Literacy Curriculum Framework (OALCF) was developed to provide direction to service providers on how to deliver programming that is
- based on adult learning principles
OALCF is a broad term that refers to all the features of delivering a competency-based program. It includes informal and standardized assessment activities, goal path descriptions, task-based programming and assessment, and a focus on program planning and completion, and learner transitions. The OALCF links the LBS program to the requirements of employers, educational and training service providers, and community partners in a way that is easy to understand.
(LBS Service Provider Guidelines 2020, page 6)
The Curriculum Framework (March 2015) is the foundation of the OALCF. It describes six broad, competencies – generic categories of learner abilities—that organize the content of the LBS program. These competencies are embedded in authentic and purposeful tasks that show how literacy learning transfers to goal-related activities.
The competencies in the OALCF are closely linked to the nine Essential Skills.
Essential Skills domains
Find and Use Information
Communicate Ideas and Information
Understand and Use Numbers
Use Digital Technology
Engage with Others
Working with Others
The curriculum framework also provides examples of what a task at the end of the level looks like. End-of-level tasks are categorized by OALCF goal path, which provides practitioners with additional support in designing and implementing literacy programming.
Level Descriptors in Literacy and Essential Skills
Canada (Statistics Canada) and a number of other OECD countries participated in three surveys of literacy skills: the 1994 International Adult Literacy Skills Survey (IALS), the 2003 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) – known as the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) in Canada – and in 2012, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The first survey measured 3 literacy skills (prose literacy, document use, and numeracy) on a 500-point scale divided into 5 levels. The second survey measured the literacy skills plus problem-solving skills on the same 500-point scale. The third survey measured adults’ proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environment using a similar 500-point scale. It also gathered information and data on how adults use their skills at home, at work and in the wider community.
ESDC Canada uses a similar 500-point scale to describe the 5 levels of complexity for each Essential Skill. Click here to see how essential skills are assessed for complexity.
IALSS Level Descriptors
ES Level Descriptors
Level 1 - indicates persons with very low 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 1 - Read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information. Follow simple written directions.
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 than at 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 2 - Read more complex texts to locate a single piece of information or read simpler texts to locate multiple pieces of information. Make low-level inferences.
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.
Level 3 - Choose and integrate information from various sources or from several parts of a single text. Make low-level inferences from multiple sources. Identify relevant and irrelevant information.
Level 4 and 5 - describe respondents who demonstrate command of higher-level information processing skills.
Level 4 - Integrate and synthesize information from multiple sources or from complex and lengthy texts. Make complex inferences and use general background knowledge. Evaluate quality of text.
Level 5 - Interpret dense and complex texts. Make high-level inferences and use specialized knowledge.
Read more here: Reader's Guide to Essential Skills
Level Descriptors in LBS
The LBS levels are determined by the Ontario Adult Literacy Curriculum Framework.
The OALCF uses three levels to describe a learner’s developing skill level. These levels are assessed for complexity the same way as Essential Skills Levels 1, 2, and 3.
Like the Essential Skills, the OALCF focuses on the ways in which individuals use their abilities to accomplish tasks outside a learning context.
Where OALCF skills intersect with Essential Skills domains, task descriptors are consistent with Essential Skills Levels 1, 2, and 3. In cases where the Essential Skills do not have a corresponding complexity scale, either similar task complexity features have been identified to describe tasks along a scale of 1 to 3, or tasks have been deemed appropriate for learners regardless of their level of proficiency.
Although the Essential Skills scale describes 5 levels of task complexity, the OALCF addresses the first 3 Levels of the Essential Skills. The decision to include only Levels 1, 2, and 3 was informed by findings from various international adult literacy and skills surveys, indicating that adults with Level 3 skills can meet most of the Essential Skills demands of daily life and can transfer their learning more easily from one context to another.
Examples of complexity comparisons
Read brief texts to locate specific details.
Interpret very simple documents to locate specific details.
Read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information.
Follow simple written directions.
... very low 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.
Read texts to locate and connect ideas and information.
Interpret simple documents to locate and connect information.
Read more complex texts to locate a single piece of information or read simpler texts to locate multiple pieces of information.
Make low-level inferences.
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 skills than at level 1. ...
Read longer texts to connect, evaluate and integrate ideas and information.
Interpret somewhat complex documents to connect, evaluate and integrate information.
Choose and integrate information from various sources or from several parts of a single text.
Make low-level inferences from multiple sources. Identify relevant and irrelevant information.
...Like higher levels, it requires the ability to integrate several sources of information and solve more complex problems.
Task and Performance Descriptors in the OALCF
The Ontario Adult Literacy Curriculum Framework uses task-based learning so learners make a connection between what they learn in an educational setting and how to apply these skills and knowledge in everyday activities.
Each task is assessed for one of the three levels of complexity using
- task descriptors that describe the features of each task, and
- performance descriptors that describe the level of learner performance expected at the end of each level
Tasks are more complex when they
- are not well-defined
- require more steps
- can be completed in more than one way, especially when they do not have a set procedure
- contain unfamiliar elements, such as context and vocabulary
- involve multiple or complex documents and texts
Learners who perform increasingly complex tasks can
- make inferences to determine task requirements
- apply their background knowledge and experience to carry out unfamiliar tasks
- manage tasks with unfamiliar elements
- identify a variety of ways to complete tasks
- find, integrate, and analyze information
- experiment and problem-solve to achieve desired results
The two descriptors work in together to determine task complexity at a given level within a given “task group” of a competency. Task groups link the broad competencies to program development and make it easier to determine what a learner can or cannot do. When taken together, task groups describe the full range of content within each competency.
The 5 LBS Goal Paths
A goal is what a learner wants to do when they leave the LBS Program.
A goal path is the work learners will do in an LBS program to prepare to achieve the goal. The LBS Program has five goal paths: apprenticeship /skills training, employment, independence, post-secondary, and secondary school credit.
Apprenticeship / Skills Training
This goal path is for learners who wish to enter an apprenticeship program to pursue a career in the skilled trades. The skills training aspect of this goal refers to training programs of less than one year in length that can be delivered by colleges or private training organizations.
This goal path is for learners who wish to enter into employment, retain their job or advance in their careers. Activities that lead to employment and are similar to work, such as volunteering, internships, community placement and practice firm positions are also included in this goal.
This goal path is for learners who wish to achieve a greater degree of personal independence and growth in relation to a variety of tasks in a learner’s home, personal life and community. In general, LBS programming for independence can be organized under four broad sets of objectives: manage basic needs; manage health; manage personal issues and relationships; or participate fully as a member of the community.
This goal path is for people who want or need to obtain a certificate, diploma and/or degree. Post-secondary education includes all formal educational programs offered at colleges or universities for which high school completion or equivalency is the normal entrance requirement.
Secondary School Credits
This goal path is for learners who wish to obtain secondary school credit(s) or an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD), either through a school board or through the Independent Learning Centre (ILC).
Find more information in the Goal Path Description documents.
The OALCF goal-directed, competency-based approach to task-based learning requires learners to use skills, knowledge, and behaviours to demonstrate success against the standards set by a curriculum framework.
The OALCF uses three types of assessment tools:
Example Tasks: Tasks that illustrate what learners can do at the end of a level within the OALCF. Each example task indicates the goal paths in which learners are likely to be expected to perform similar tasks once they have transitioned to their goal.
Milestone Tasks: Standardized indicators of learner progress towards completion of a goal. Organized by goal path, they are linked to the indicators in the competencies and task groups at three levels of performance found in the Curriculum Framework. They are goal-related assessment activities that learners complete to demonstrate their abilities to carry out goal-related tasks. Learners and practitioners will work together to choose milestones that are meaningful and appropriate, given both the learner’s literacy skills upon program entry and the learner’s goals.
In 2012, a set of milestone assessment activities and a Milestone Selection Guide was launched. Successfully completed milestones are recorded so that the Ministry, practitioners and learners can track learner achievements.
Culminating Tasks: More complex than milestone tasks but are similarly aligned to the OALCF. A goal-directed culminating task draws together multiple competencies which may be at different levels of complexity. Successful completion of a culminating task is an important demonstration of the learner’s ability to manage the kinds of tasks that will be encountered once the learner transitions beyond the LBS Program.
Questions and Activities for Reflection
- Write your definition of an essential skill. What are the essential skills LBS program managers use the most?
- What other skills or attributes are essential for literacy program managers?
- What goal paths does your agency focus on mainly and why?
- How would you explain “task-based learning” to someone from outside the LBS field?