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Causes of illiteracy

Mistaken beliefs

To understand the reality experienced by illiterate individuals, we have to set aside our prejudices and stereotypes. That is not always easy, since in society the word “illiterate” has pejorative, negative connotations. This implies that the individuals to whom we apply these tags are less “good” than people who know how to read and write. The dearth of information on this topic contributes substantially to reinforcing this perception. 

Our awareness and information mandate is aimed primarily at taking the mystery out of this problem, raising people’s awareness and changing mindsets concerning illiteracy. 

Here is a series of widely held mistaken beliefs concerning illiterate individuals, along with the actual situation. 

In Quebec, there aren’t many illiterate people—they’re only found in developing countries. FALSE 

In fact, 19% of Quebecers are illiterate (literacy levels -1 and 1), and 34.3% have serious reading difficulties, often placing on literacy level 2. The latter will often be described as functionally illiterate. These figures are not invented, they are quite real. Illiteracy affects all countries, whether they are industrialized or not. Quebec is no exception to the rule.


Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), an initiative of the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD), October 2013. 

Most illiterate individuals (Level 1) are elderly and immigrants. FALSE 

They aren’t just elderly people. Among those in the labour force:

  • 10% are aged 16–25;
  • 39% are aged 26–46 (parenting age);
  • 51% are aged 46–65. 

They aren’t just immigrants:

  • Only 31% of people at Level 1 are immigrants (aged 16–65). 

In addition, immigrants often have very good reading and writing skills in their own language. Where they have trouble is with French, so they are more in need of French-language classes than literacy training. 

Immigrants often have more schooling than average Quebecers. In fact, education is a significant criterion for being entitled to immigrate to Quebec. 


Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey: Public Use Microdata File,Statistics Canada, 2006. Compilation: Institut de la statistique du Québec. 

Illiterate people are not intelligent. FALSE 

While illiterate people have not acquired the reading proficiency they require to meet the needs of the Quebec of today, they have generally developed many other skills. They are often faced with numerous barriers owing to their inability to access written information. Frequently operating in a context of survival and ashamed of their difficulties, adults who are illiterate or poor readers generally resort to strategies that help them hide their problem from their immediate entourage for a good part of their lives. 

People with dyslexia are illiterate. FALSE 

People with dyslexia are not necessarily illiterate. They can read and write, although they do have trouble doing so. Dyslexia, like dysorthographia and other learning disabilities, can cause illiteracy when individuals do not receive adequate support to develop the mechanisms that enable them to read.

Illiterate parents are bound to have illiterate children. FALSE 

Children whose parents are under-educated or illiterate are more likely to be illiterate in their turn. But if their parents are made aware of the importance of reading at an early age and they receive the necessary support to be involved in stimulating their children at home, the children will be better equipped when they go to school, and will have a better chance of succeeding. 

The people around the children (friends, babysitters, extended family) and school staff will also have a major influence on how well they do at school. 


Développer nos compétences en littératie : un défi porteur d’avenir, Rapport québécois de l’Enquête internationale sur l’alphabétisation et les compétences des adultes (EIACA) (Developing Our Literacy Skills: Meeting the Challenge of the Future, International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey [IALSS]—Quebec Report), 2003, Quebec City, Institut de la statistique du Québec, 256 pages.


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