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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1998  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 03/06/1998   
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Contents >> Education >> Educational Attainment: Literacy skills

Educational Attainment: Literacy skills

In 1996, almost half of Australians aged 15-74 had poor or very poor literacy skills and could be expected to experience difficulty using many of the printed materials they encounter in everyday life.

The demands on people's literacy skills in everyday life are increasing, and it is recognised that literacy is strongly related to social well being and participation in an increasingly complex society. Adequate literacy skills are of particular importance in enabling Australians to function effectively in a flexible labour force which can respond to changing workplace demands. This is especially so in a climate of growth in service industries and white-collar occupations (see Australian Social Trends 1997, Changing industries, changing jobs).


How literacy was measured

The ABS Survey of Aspects of Literacy focussed on those skills that Australian adults need to understand and use information from material printed in English and encountered in everyday life. In this respect, it differs from surveys of school children, which aim to measure their achievement according to expected standards.

Literacy skills were assessed using tasks which ranged in difficulty and required open-ended answers. The tasks were based on common examples of printed material. Three types of literacy skills were assessed:

Prose literacy is the ability to understand and use information from various kinds of prose texts, including texts from newspapers, magazines and brochures.

Document literacy is the ability to locate and use information contained in materials such as tables, schedules, charts, graphs and maps.

Quantitative literacy is the ability to perform arithmetic operations using numbers contained in printed texts or documents.

Proficiency in each of the three types of literacy was ranked according to the following levels:

Level 1, very poor skills, and could be expected to experience considerable difficulties in using many of the printed materials encountered in daily life and at work.

Level 2, some difficulties in using many of the printed materials encountered in daily life and at work.

Level 3, the ability to cope with a variety of material found in daily life and at work.

Level 4/5, good to very good literacy skills.


Skill levels
Results from the Survey of Aspects of Literacy show that in 1996, about 20% of Australians aged 15-74 had very poor literacy skills (Level 1) and could be expected to experience considerable difficulties in using many of the texts and documents printed in English that they encounter in daily life. A further 28% had poor skills (Level 2) and could be expected to experience some difficulties. About one in three people were at Level 3, with skills that would enable them to cope with many of the literacy demands of daily life and work, but not always at a high level of proficiency. One in six possessed good to very good literacy skills (Level 4/5).

NUMBER AND PROPORTION OF PEOPLE AT EACH LITERACY SKILL LEVEL, 1996

Prose
Document
Quantitative
Skill level
'000
%
'000
%
'000
%

Level 1
2,607.4
19.7
2,580.3
19.5
2,531.8
19.2
Level 2
3,631.9
27.5
3,738.3
28.3
3,590.8
27.2
Level 3
4,668.9
35.3
4,774.2
36.1
4,764.0
36.0
Level 4/5
2,312.5
17.5
2,128.0
16.1
2,334.2
17.7

Total
13,220.8
100.0
13,220.8
100.0
13,220.8
100.0

Source: Aspects of Literacy, Assessed Skill Levels, Australia, 1996 (cat. no. 4228.0).


First language spoken
There was a strong relationship between the first language spoken and literacy skill level. This was not surprising, because the survey assessed people's English literacy skills.

The survey was administered in English because it is the primary language used in Australia, and poor English literacy skills may result in disadvantage irrespective of a person's level of proficiency in another language.

Of those whose first language was English, 14% were at Level 1 on the prose scale. The skill levels of people whose first language was not English, but who were born in Australia, were similar to those of people whose first language was English (17%). In contrast, of people whose first language was not English and who were born outside Australia, 55% had Level 1 prose skills.


PROSE LITERACY SKILLS BY FIRST LANGUAGE SPOKEN, 1996

Source: Aspects of Literacy, Assessed Skill Levels, Australia, 1996 (cat. no. 4228.0).


Education
Educational attainment was strongly related to literacy skill level. However, some people with little formal education have good literacy skills, and some with high levels of education have relatively poor literacy skills.

Of people who did not complete the highest level of secondary school available, most (70%) had poor or very poor prose skills. By comparison, 66% of those who completed the highest level of secondary school but obtained no post-school qualification were at Level 3 or higher. This was a higher proportion than those with vocational qualifications (54%). However, many of those with vocational qualifications did not complete the highest level of secondary school.

Relatively large proportions of people with bachelor degrees (44%) or postgraduate qualifications (54%) had good or very good prose literacy skills. However, some with high qualifications were at lower skill levels. For example, 12% of those with postgraduate qualifications had poor or very poor prose literacy skills. Factors such as age and whether English was the first language spoken may have contributed to this.

Among people without high levels of educational attainment, those whose parents had higher levels of education tended to have better literacy skills. However, parents' levels of education appeared to have less effect on literacy skills if a person's own level of educational attainment was high.

PROSE LITERACY SKILLS BY EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT, 1996
Source: Unpublished data, Survey of Aspects of Literacy 1996


Male/female differences
The survey results confirmed a common perception that women are better at 'language' tasks, while men are better at 'numeracy'.

The prose tasks of the literacy survey were more aligned to language ability than either the document or quantitative literacy tasks. A larger proportion of women than men had good or very good prose skills (19% and 16% respectively), and a smaller proportion of women had very poor or poor prose skills (45% compared with 49% of males) .

For document literacy the differences were less pronounced. However, men performed slightly better than women at Level 4/5 (18% and 14% respectively).

The quantitative literacy tasks, while still strongly related to reading comprehension, did involve some degree of numeracy. The proportion of men with good or very good quantitative literacy skills (22%) was larger than the proportion of women (14%).

Older men generally had higher level literacy skills than older women, which may reflect to some extent the traditional differences in educational and labour force opportunities for men and women in older age brackets.

Age
In general, younger people tended to have better literacy skills. The 20-24 year age group had the smallest proportion at Level 1 and was among the age groups with the highest proportions at Level 4/5.

While 15-19 year olds generally performed better than those aged 55 and over, smaller proportions had good or very good skills compared with age groups between 20 and 54. This suggests that the skills of people aged 15-19 may develop further as they complete their secondary and tertiary education and establish themselves in the workforce.

The literacy skills of people aged 45 and over declined markedly with age. This may be related to older people generally having lower levels of education than younger people. Another factor may be their higher rate of disabilities, some of which would affect literacy skills (e.g. poor eyesight).

PROPORTION AT PROSE LEVEL 1, BY AGE, 1996
Source: Aspects of Literacy, Assessed Skill Levels, Australia, 1996 (cat. no. 4228.0).


Literacy and labour force status
Employed people tended to have better literacy skills than unemployed people and those not in the labour force. Nevertheless, a substantial proportion of employed people had poor or very poor literacy skills.

Some occupations were characterised by higher proportions of people with good or very good literacy skills than others. For example, about half of all professionals possessed good or very good prose literacy skills, while only a very small proportion had very poor skills. Para-professionals and clerks also tended to have better prose skills than other occupations - relatively small proportions of para-professionals (20%) and clerks (27%) had poor or very poor skills. In contrast, two thirds of plant and machine operators and drivers and 59% of labourers and related workers had poor or very poor prose skills. Industries such as construction; agriculture, forestry and fishing; and manufacturing, in which there were larger proportions of people in these occupations, had poor or very poor prose literacy skills.

The proportion of unemployed people with very poor prose skills (30%) was considerably higher than that of employed people (12%). For unemployed people, literacy skill levels were also linked to duration of unemployment. Over half of people who had been unemployed for two years or more had very poor literacy skills, compared with about one quarter of those who had been unemployed for less than one year.

Literacy and activities in daily life
People with high levels of literacy undertook activities requiring literacy skills more frequently than people with lower levels.
In the workplace, occupations in which relatively large proportions of people performed literacy activities frequently were also those with the largest proportions of people at Level 4/5.

In everyday life, people with high levels of literacy were almost twice as likely to regularly read books, visit public libraries and prepare written material than people with poor literacy skills.

Needing help with literacy-related activities
In general, most people who reported needing help with various literacy-related tasks were at Level 1, that is, they had very poor skills. About 19% of people at Level 1 needed help often with reading or using information from government agencies, businesses and other institutions; 18% needed help often with writing notes or letters; and 17% needed help often with filling out forms.

However, the results of the literacy survey also indicated that there are certain types of printed material with which people at all skill levels sometimes have difficulty. For example, small proportions of people at Level 2 (12%), Level 3 (7%) and Level 4/5 (3%) reported needing help sometimes with reading information from government agencies, businesses or other institutions. This may indicate that this type of material tends to be more demanding.

How people rated their own skills
Prior to their objective assessments, respondents were asked to rate their own reading, writing and basic mathematical skills for the needs of daily life. People's self-assessment of their skills is important, because someone who is assessed as having poor skills, but perceives their skills to be good, may be less likely to undertake training to improve those skills.

In contrast to the objective assessment of prose, document and quantitative literacy skills, people's self-ratings of their skills may be affected by the literacy demands of their daily lives. For example, someone whose daily life typically required them to perform only a few basic literacy-related tasks might rate their skills better 'for the needs of daily life' than someone whose daily life required them to perform more complex tasks, even if they were assessed as being at the same literacy level.

Just 28% of those who rated their reading skills as excellent for the needs of daily life were assessed as having good or very good prose literacy skills, while over one quarter had poor or very poor literacy skills. However, of those who rated their reading skills as poor for the needs of daily life, the vast majority (92%) did have very poor skills.

Of those who rated their mathematical skills as excellent for the needs of daily life,one third had good or very good quantitative literacy skills, but a substantial proportion (23%) were found to have poor or very poor quantitative literacy skills (levels 1 and 2).


INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS
By conducting the Survey of Aspects of Literacy, Australia became part of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and Statistics Canada. This international study involves many countries undertaking similar surveys over a four-year period.

The table shows the results for prose literacy for countries who have participated in the IALS to date. While Australia included people aged 15-74 in the survey, most countries included people aged 16-65, and therefore the following table is restricted to people aged 16-65 to enable valid comparisons across countries. Because of this, the results for Australia shown in the following table will differ from results given elsewhere in this article.

A comparison of Australia's results with those of other countries shows that Australia's prose literacy performance was broadly similar to Canada's (although in Canada slightly more people were at Level 4/5) and New Zealand's. In the United Kingdom there were more people at Level 1 than Australia, while in the United States of America there were more people at both the lowest level (Level 1) and the highest level (Level 4/5).
PERSONS AGED 16-65 YEARS, 1994-95

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Level 4/5
Country
%
%
%
%

Australia
17
27
37
19
Belgium (Flanders)
18
28
39
14
Canada(a)
17
26
35
23
Germany
14
34
38
13
Ireland
23
30
34
14
Netherlands
11
30
44
15
New Zealand
18
27
35
19
Poland
43
35
20
3
Sweden
8
20
40
32
Switzerland (French)
18
34
39
10
Switzerland (German)
19
36
36
9
United Kingdom
22
30
31
17
United States of America
21
26
32
21

(a) Combined results for English and French languages.

Source: OECD, International Adult Literacy Survey, 1994-1995.

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