Literacy and Essential Skills

Literacy and Essential Skills in the 21st Century

“With the emergence of the “new knowledge economy,” globalization, and advances in technology and communications, our understanding of literacy has changed considerably over the last two or three decades. Indeed, many researchers indicate that analytical skill and the ability to work in heterogeneous groups are literacy skills that are at least as important than reading in today’s world.”
– Leona Gadsby, Decoda Literacy Solutions

In Canada, we’ve begun to refer to Literacy and Essential Skills (LES) to try to reduce the confusion that having two names for similar sets of transferable skills has created. Below are the definitions of both and the similarities between them.

What is Literacy?

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.” – UNESCO

This is the most commonly accepted definition of literacy from UNESCO. In simpler terms, it involves many kinds of behaviour at different levels, including reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking, counting, coping with the demands of the state, of social life, and employment (from the Concise Companion to the English Language).

For a 21st Century look a literacy from Decoda’s lens, read our Literacy Manifesto.

What are the Essential Skills?

Essential Skills are defined as the skills needed for work, learning and life. They provide the foundation for learning all other skills and enable people to evolve with their jobs and adapt to workplace change. Essential Skills help people perform the tasks required by their occupation, provide people with a foundation for learning other skills, and enhance people’s ability to innovate and adapt to workplace change.

The Nine Essential Skills are:

1. Reading Text – reading different types of material such as notes, letters, memos, manuals, specifications, books, reports and journals
2. Document Use – reading tables, graphs, lists, blueprints, drawings, signs, labels
3. Numeracy – using numbers to perform calculating and estimating tasks such as handling cash, budgeting, measuring and analyzing
4. Writing – doing tasks such as filling in forms, writing text and using computers to write
5. Oral Communication – using verbal skills to exchange ideas and information with others
6. Working with Others – doing tasks with partners or in a team
7. Continuous Learning – the requirement of workers to participate in an ongoing process of acquiring skills and knowledge
8. Thinking Skills – knowing how to problem solve, make decisions, plan and organize tasks, find information and make good use of memory
9. Computer Use – working with computers, from entering information, to knowing a software package, to managing a network, to analyzing and designing systems.

Essential Skills provide employers, service professionals, governments with a common way to talk about literacy skill development for adults in the workplace.

For more information, read about our work in Workforce Literacy & Essential Skills.

How are Literacy and Essential Skills related?

Adult Literacy programs and Essential Skills programs overlap in the application of curriculum, the focus of learning, and the distinct types of learners.

Essential Skills are skills needed for work, learning and life. Essential Skills programs are delivered largely in workplaces or in nearby educational environments. They are focused on types of work and reaching the outcomes required by employers.

Adult Literacy concerns the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. In general, adult literacy programs provide instruction about how to read and write as well as strategies for using reading and writing. Adult literacy programs are delivered largely by community organizations, post-secondary institutions and schools – not in the workplace.