The PIAAC survey has three main parts: a background questionnaire, a direct assessment of skills, and a module on the use of skills. The survey is administered in the respondent’s home by a Statistics Canada interviewer.

Background questionnaire

The PIAAC background questionnaire collects information to put the results of the skills assessment into context, classifying survey participants according to a range of factors that influence the development and maintenance of skills. In particular, the questionnaire facilitates analysis of how skills are distributed across socio-demographic and socioeconomic variables. The questionnaire is divided into the following sections:

  • Demographic characteristics (e.g., Indigenous identity, age, gender, immigrant status);
  • Educational attainment and training (e.g., level of education, where and when attained, field of study);
  • Employment status and income (e.g., employed or not, type of work, earnings); and
  • Social and linguistic background (e.g., self-reported health status, language spoken at home).

Direct assessment of skills

The direct-assessment component measures the three foundational information-processing skills previously described. It should be noted that assessment participants are tested in the official language of their own choice (English or French), and thus the results are influenced by their proficiency in that language. Each skill is measured along a continuum and within a context of how it is used. To help interpret the results, the continuum has been divided into different levels of proficiency. These do not represent strict demarcations between abilities but instead describe a set of skills that individuals possess to a greater or lesser degree. This means that individuals scoring at lower levels are not precluded from completing tasks at a higher level—they are simply less likely to complete them than individuals scoring at the higher level. Descriptions of the different levels and the abilities that they comprise are available.

PIAAC recognizes that concepts such as literacy, numeracy, and PS-TRE are too complex and varied to be captured by a single measure. For example, there are multiple forms of literacy, rather than a single one. The aim, therefore, is not to redefine or simplify such concepts; rather, it is to evaluate a specific, measurable dimension of them. The skills assessed by PIAAC are defined in terms of three parameters: content, cognitive strategies, and context. The content and cognitive strategies are defined by a specific framework that describes what is being measured and guides the interpretation of results. The context defines the different situations in which each of these skills is used, including professional, educational, personal, and societal.


For the purposes of PIAAC, literacy is defined as “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.” Respondents are measured for their ability to engage with written texts (print-based and digital) and thereby participate in society, achieve goals, and develop their knowledge and potential. This requires accessing, identifying, and processing information from a variety of texts that relate to a range of settings.
The population of adults aged 16 to 65 was assessed over a continuum of ability in literacy using a measurement scale ranging from 0 to 500. Proficiency levels are used to help interpret the findings. OECD has divided reporting scales for literacy into five proficiency levels (with an additional category, “below Level 1”), defined by a particular score-point range, where each level corresponds to a description of what adults with particular scores can do in concrete terms. Proficiency levels have a descriptive purpose only. To view a description of literacy proficiency levels, please click here.


PIAAC defines numeracy as “the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.” Respondents are measured for their ability to engage with mathematical information and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in everyday life. This requires understanding mathematical content and ideas (e.g., quantities, numbers, dimensions, relationships), and the representation of that content (e.g., objects, pictures, diagrams, graphs). The PIAAC definition is designed to evaluate how mathematical concepts are applied in the real world, not whether someone can solve a set of equations in isolation. The population of adults aged 16 to 65 was assessed over a continuum of ability in numeracy using a measurement scale ranging from 0 to 500. As is the case for literacy, the results for numeracy are presented either as an average score or as a distribution across proficiency levels. To view a description of numeracy proficiency levels, please click here.

Problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE)

Respondents are measured for their ability to use “digital technology, communications tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.” This requires understanding technology (e.g., hardware, software applications, commands and functions) and solving problems with it. The PS-TRE framework identifies three main dimensions in terms of quality and complexity. These are (1) the technology dimension, (2) the task dimension, and (3) the cognitive dimension. Variations in each of these dimensions contribute to the overall difficulty of a problem. The PS-TRE proficiency scale was divided into four levels. To view a description of PS-TRE proficiency levels, please click here.

Module on the use of skills

The module on the use of skills collects self-reported information on how a range of skills are used at work and in everyday life, including the frequency and intensity of use. It includes information about the use of cognitive skills (such as engagement in reading, numeracy, and ICT); non-cognitive skills (such as the capacity to work collaboratively or as a member of a team); organizational skills (such as communicating, planning, and influencing); and skills in the workplace (such as autonomy over key aspects of work and what kind of skills are employed at work).