How the design and methods used in the Essential Skills framework coordinate and guide its use in education

A reader wondered why I called the Essential Skills a curriculum framework when it was intended to be used to profile various occupations (i.e. provide extensive descriptions of jobs organized by skill domain and level), and not to support individual literacy development. Based on some previous research into the development of the Essential Skills, I settled on the term curriculum framework for two main reasons.

  1. The original aim of what was called the Essential Skills Research Project (ESRP) included educational applications from the beginning.
  2. The Essential Skills framework is built using the same curriculum development methods articulated by Ralph Tyler in 1949, which have become ubiquitous in education (i.e. a listing of skills and sub-skills that are cross-referenced with a level hierarchy and statements of complexity or skill development). In addition, the part of the ES framework that was most comprehensively developed was what is commonly referred to as the literacy skills: reading, document use, numeracy and writing. Cross-referencing those skill domains with a level hierarchy drawn from international literacy testing initiatives and statements of skill standards, also drawn from testing, indicates to educators that the framework can be applied in the context of adult learning programs. Whether or not this is successful is another issue.

Indeed, an initial goal of the ESRP was to describe (or profile) particular occupations, primarily those considered entry-level, using the framework. One of the reasons for doing this, according to the main developer Stan Jones, was to establish “skill standards” in order to explore the relationship between international literacy testing results and job performance (Jones, 2005; Jones & Déry, 1994).

At the same time, the manager of the ESRP in the federal government, Debra Mair, immediately recognized how the framework could be used within education. She was an educator before joining the public service and likely recognized its curricular construction. When writing about its development she says she and others were concerned with the absence of quality standards in entry-level occupations that could be used to support educational work. Those same skill standards for occupations could likely work for people who have, what she called, skill deficits.

The Essential Skills Project focuses on lower skill occupations because these are less likely to be the object of standards development activities and more likely to be areas where skill deficit problems are experienced” (Mair, 1997, p. 302).

One of the first people to put the framework to use to develop job profiles (and who later wrote a brief history of the development of the Essential Skills) also recognized an educational application for particular groups. Carol MacLeod says policy-makers at the time were concerned with “productivity, safety and inclusion (for instance with regard to immigrants, Aboriginals, older workers, at-risk youth, etc.)” (MacLeod, 2007, p. 62). The standards, she goes on to explain, could be readily turned into learning objectives for education and training initiatives.

Perhaps those directly involved in the project were reluctant to draw too much attention to its curricular uses. After all, the feds aren’t supposed to be involved in the direct delivery of education (a provincial responsibility), and a curriculum framework project could definitely be seen as direct involvement.

Then a cadre of folks were trained to use the framework and develop those job profiles. The profilers, as they came to be called, were usually educators. They likely immediately recognised how the ES framework operated the same way as a curriculum framework used in education. Some of the profilers became involved in additional curricular work using the framework as the basis to create assessments, learning materials and adaptations of other curriculum frameworks such as the Ontario Adult Literacy Curriculum Framework (OALCF).

Even if the aims of the project were clear from the beginning, I would argue that the profilers and others didn’t create new purposes, nor did they ignore intended uses. They simply extended and adapted the existing curricular properties in the framework, and put it to work the way it was designed to be used.

There is tremendous influence in the operational properties of something like a curriculum framework and its components, such as sets of skill standards (also called objectives or outcomes or competencies), that supersede both intentions and semantic descriptions.

In addition to drawing on Ralph Tyler’s approach to curriculum development and managing learning, which also draws on scientific management principles, the ES framework also draws on job task analysis, a key component of scientific management first articulated by Frederick Winslow Taylor at the beginning of the 20th Century. The method involves observing work activity and breaking it down into component parts, usually from simple to complex, in order to better manage those activities for greater productivity and efficiency. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) and its predecessor ministries has had a long-standing interest in applying scientific management principles to its labour training initiatives, including literacy, in the hopes of developing a more productive worker. But does it work?

After 20 years of use at the federal level, including ten years of direct funding through the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, does the Essential Skills framework and its directly related curricular supports make anything more teachable and learnable? What did the extensive categorization of occupations accomplish? Do educators, including workplace educators, find the framework useful? Does it help them in their day to day work with adult learners? Or is the framework merely a managerial project that provides the illusion that the complexities of learning and literacy can be neatly parsed and controlled for accountability purposes? Does the framework and its curricular supports even work for accountability purposes?


Jones, S. (2005). Essential Skills in practice: Methodology and measurement in surveys. In T. Wallace, N. Murphy, G. Lépine & D. Brown (Eds.), Exploring new directions in essential skills (pp. 45-52). Ottawa, ON: Public Policy Forum.

Jones, S., & Déry, L. (1994). The definition of basic skills and development of measurement units: Levels for the basic skills. Unpublished report available from author and ESDC.

MacLeod, C. (2007). The evolution of Essential Skills. Unpublished report available from author and ESDC.

Mair, D. (1997). The development of occupational Essential Skills profiles. In M. Taylor (Ed.), Workplace education: The changing landscape (pp. 299-318). Toronto, ON: Culture Concepts Inc.



5 thoughts on “How the design and methods used in the Essential Skills framework coordinate and guide its use in education

  1. One example I can give of how practitioners used the ESRP was in changing how they taught for people with specific workplace goals or in the workplace. Practitioners began to shift from teaching “reading to learn” to “reading to do” with the profiles providing information about what was required in the workplace (especially where the practitioner had no prior knowledge about the work). The task was what led learning. I think this was a profound change in the early 1990s.


  2. Thanks for this post, Christine, thanks for the question, Brigid. The background of the Essential Skills Framework in relation to its potential and actual use as a curriculum framework is very useful for me to understand the explicit focus on ES at some adult basic education and training programs and the implicit connections at others by way of the OALCF better. I was always interested in updating the hopelessly outdated Computer Use ES or find a proxy framework to guide the current and evolving use of digital technologies in programs, and that in some way within a curriculum framework.


    1. You raise a great point about the need for a curriculum framework, any curriculum framework, to be updated and to evolve. This is especially apparent when digital technology is involved. In addition, during the past two decades or so, a great deal of important research in the areas of adult numeracy and literacy has been done. For the most part, important research-based findings about the social and situated nature of literacy learning is not reflected in curriculum frameworks, nor is it reflected in government logic models and related accountability frameworks.


  3. Thanks for this post, Christine. I now see why you refer to the ESRP as a curriculum framework. It will be interesting to see if people tell you how they are using the ESRP if at all.


    1. I agree!
      People have varying intensities of engagement with the Essential Skills. Most give a passing nod to them by using the small ‘e’ and small ‘s’ term—essential skills. This is usually tacked on to the term literacy so people now talk about ‘literacy and essential skills’ or LES in a very general way.
      Quite a few programs in Ontario even changed their names to include the term.
      There are also numerous examples of programs engaging with the list of nine skills, usually in an attempt to infuse some meaning into abstract and general concepts like ‘reading’ or ‘oral communication’ so they can relate them to the work they do. For example, those in family literacy programs completely re-invented the notion of Essential Skills ‘reading’ in order to relate the concept to their work with families and reading picture books to one’s child.
      It seems very few people, except curriculum consultants, a few researchers perhaps and profilers working on OLES funded projects, engaged more intensely with the framework—the levels, skill domains, and learning objectives (statements of complexity). It would be interesting to know if any educators used the framework outside of a funded project. How did it work out for them?


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