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Literacy and numeracy in Australia

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I’m a teacher of English to speakers of other languages who’s now moving in a small way into the literacy and numeracy field, for which there is a fair amount of funding around at the moment. As such, I’m learning a little about the state of literacy and numeracy in Australia.

In 2006, the results of an adult literacy and life skills survey [ALLS] were issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This was part of an international study co-ordinated by Statistics Canada and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]. Literacy was measured within four domains:

  • Prose literacy: the ability to understand and use information from various kinds of narrative texts, including texts from newspapers, magazines and brochures.
  • Document literacy: the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various formats including job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables and charts.
  • Numeracy: the knowledge and skills required to effectively manage and respond to the mathematical demands of diverse situations.
  • Problem solving: goal-directed thinking and action in situations for which no routine solution is available.

Results were grouped into five levels for each of the first three domains, and four levels for problem solving, with level one being the lowest level. The survey developers rated level 3 as the “minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy”.

Here are the findings. In the domain of prose literacy, 46% of Australians aged between 15 and 74 were judged to be at levels one and two, 37% at level three, and 16% at level four/five. Results were much the same for document literacy. On the numeracy scale, 53% were at level one or two, 31% at level three, and 16% at level four or five. For problem solving, results were even less encouraging – 70% at levels one/two, 25% at level three and only 5% at levels four/five.

Proportion at each skill level

This all sounds pretty poor, but of course there are many questions to ask, such as: How reliable was the survey, how big were the samples, have there been any longitudinal studies to indicate improvement or decline, and how does Australia compare with other developed nations?

Well, what I’m looking at is a summary, and the sample size isn’t given. There is a more detailed document which I’ve downloaded and glanced at, and it seems that the sample is large indeed, possibly taken from the national basic literacy and numeracy audits which raised a bit of controversy a few years back. They were, and presumably still are, conducted in schools – though from a look at the results and how they’re correlated with other factors, the survey must’ve been broader than this. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any closely comparable past studies, though a 1996 Survey of Aspects of Literacy did measure prose and documentary literacy,with a slightly different emphasis. Results show a slight but statistically significant improvement, with a smaller percentage of people at levels one, and a larger percentage at levels two and three [actually I’m not sure if it’s much of an improvement]. Levels four and five remained about the same.

Prose literacy by skill level – 1996 to 2006

Here’s a comparison of Australia’s rating with four other countries, Canada, the USA, Norway and Italy. As you can see, Australia rates similarly to Canada, below Norway but above the USA and well above Italy.

Prose literacy, proportion at skill level 3 or above, by Age(a) – for selected countries

However, comparisons may not be entirely reliable, due to sampling differences.

It seems that literacy declines slightly with age [though there’s a slight jump from the late teens to the early twenties], and there are some interesting sex differences. Almost twice as many males were at level 4/5 numeracy than females, while literacy levels for both sexes were much the same. Literacy and numeracy levels corresponded highly with formal education levels, unsurprisingly [where my teaching comes in], as well as with employment and income levels.

There was a comparison with assessed literacy and self assessment, which provides interesting side insights. For example, while 17% of the population were assessed at level one in literacy, only 4% assessed their own literacy as poor. In numeracy, some 67% assessed themselves as good at maths, of which only 56% actually achieved level 3 or above in numeracy. Again, that tendency to over-estimate our abilities just that little bit.

Finally, some interesting finding for people whose first language isn’t English – people I work with regularly. Unsurprisingly, their English literacy levels are lower than those of the general community, but there are 1996 figures to compare.

On the prose scale, the proportion of this group with scores at Level 3 or above increased from 22% to 38% while on the document scale the proportion increased from 32% to 50%.


Written by stewart henderson

July 11, 2011 at 7:59 am

Posted in education

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