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Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning: The Case of Literacy and Language Learning in Canada

by Sarah Elaine Eaton, Ph.D.

My recently published research investigates the links between formal, non-formal and informal learning and the differences between them. In particular, I aim to link these notions of learning to literacy and essential skills, as well as the learning of second languages in Canada. I also discuss tools for assessing language literacy.
The philosophical underpinnings of this research are:


  • There is value in learning of all kinds.
  •  Learning is a lifelong endeavour.
  •  An interdisciplinary approach is valuable.

Learning can be organized into three categories:

Formal learning This type of learning is intentional, organized and structured. Formal learning is usually arranged by institutions. Often this type of learning is guided by a curriculum or a formal program.

Non-formal learning This type of learning may or may not be intentional or arranged by an institution, but is usually organized in some way, even if it is loosely organized. There are no formal credits granted in non-formal learning situations.

Informal learning This type of learning is never organized. Rather than being guided by a rigid curriculum, it is often experiential and spontaneous


These categories are based on Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development / Organisation de Coopération et de Développement Economiques (OECD),(n.d.; Werquin, 2007). My report provides examples of literacy and essential skills, as well as second and other languages, for each of the categories.
I also explore examples of systems that value different types of learning using asset-based approaches. Attitudes are changing so that more informal ways of learning are being acknowledged and valued. This is especially relevant to literacy.


Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), the branch of the federal government that deals with employment skills and learning, has defined literacy as:

  • Reading text
  • Document use
  • Numeracy
  • Writing
  • Oral communication
  • Working with others
  • Continuous learning
  • Thinking skills
  • Computer use

HRSDC takes the approach that there are different levels of complexity for each skill and has developed a set of tools for learners, literacy practitioners and employers (available at

  • Learners can access self-assessment tools that will help them understand their competence levels.
  • Practitioners can access tools that will help them conduct literacy assessments.
  • Employers can access a “Workplace Survey”, which will help them examine the literacy and essential skills of their organization.


At the international level, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CRFR) assesses competence of second and other languages. Interest in this framework and its application is growing in Canada.

Sarah Eaton holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership.  She is an author, researcher, consultant and speaker in the educational and non-profit sectors. A full copy of her report is available at:European Association of Education for Adults:


Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. (n.d.). Essential Skills.   Retrieved January 10, 2010, from

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development / Organisation de Coopération et de Développement Economiques (OECD). (n.d.). Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning – Home. from,3343,en_2649_39263238_37136921_1_1_1_1,00.html

Werquin, P. (2007). Terms, Concepts and Models for Analyzing the Value of Recognition Programmes: RNFIL- Third Meeting of National Representatives and International Organisations. Retrieved from


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