1367.5 - Western Australian Statistical Indicators, Dec 2009  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 28/01/2010   
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What is literacy?

Literacy is traditionally thought to be the ability to read and write but, in today's increasingly complex society, literacy is often extended to include the "skills needed to use printed material encountered at work, at home, and in the community, such as reading, writing, numeracy, problem-solving, as well as computer literacy and computer skills." (Stats Canada: www.statcan.gc.ca)

Individuals with good literacy skills are likely to enjoy better employment opportunities, higher income, greater social participation and an improved quality of life. "The result of poor .... levels of literacy is typically lifelong poverty for the individuals themselves and significant economic and social cost for the community as a whole." (Sidoti, 2001, p.3). Such arguments would suggest that ensuring adequate literacy levels in the adult population will assist in developing a more skilled, flexible and productive work force, as well as increasing human capital and the potential for economic growth.

The perceived importance of literacy skills to the well-being of the nation is demonstrated by the recent initiatives of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), which aim to reform Australia’s education and training systems "to boost productivity and participation in the economy, improve human capital outcomes for all Australians and reduce entrenched disadvantage in Indigenous and other communities (COAG, 2008d, p. 7)". Such recent initiatives include the Smarter Schools – Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership, the National Quality Framework for Early Education and Care; and the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development.

Recent studies of adult literacy in Australia and overseas have sought to understand the relationship between literacy and the economic and social well-being of the individual. The 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey has shown that Australians in the employed labour force are likely to have higher level literacy skills than those who are not employed. Furthermore, those with poor literacy spend more time watching television and are less likely to participate in both formal and informal learning activities.

Domains of literacy

Recent international studies have sought to measure five specific aspects of literacy, or literacy domains:

Prose literacy: the ability to understand and use information from narrative texts, including newspapers, magazines and brochures.
Document literacy: the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, charts and other types of documents.
Numeracy: the knowledge and skills required to manage and respond effectively to the mathematical demands of diverse situations; for example making budgets, handling money and interpreting financial information such as interest rates.
Problem solving: goal-directed thinking and action in situations for which no routine solution is available. A typical problem-solving scenario might involve planning an interstate trip and family reunion, for relatives scattered around the countryside, who have individual preferences for the proposed activity and different appointments within the given time frame. Such an activity would require the individual to work through a list of systematic steps.
Health literacy: the knowledge and skills required to understand and use information relating to health issues, disease prevention and treatment, safety and accident prevention.

The ABS has conducted two surveys of adult literacy in Australia. The 1996 Survey of Aspects of Literacy provided a profile of the nation's literacy as part of a coordinated international study initiated by Statistics Canada and the OECD. More recently, the 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey was similarly coordinated by the OECD.

The 2006 survey collected information from Australians aged between 15 and 74 years and measured aspects of their prose literacy; document literacy; numeracy; and problem solving ability. A fifth measure, health literacy, was derived from selected items from the other four domains. Individual scores in each domain were measured on a scale 1 to 5, with Level 1 representing the lowest level of literacy and Level 5 the highest level. A score at Level 3 was considered to be the minimum literacy required to meet the complex demands of everyday life.

This article draws primarily on results from the 2006 survey although some limited comparisons are made with the 1996 survey results. Due to changes in methodology, only the prose and document literacy scales are directly comparable from the 1996 and 2006 surveys. The article therefore presents a picture of the Western Australian population in terms of current literacy levels for selected domains; and compares those demonstrating adequate literacy skills to meet the challenges of everyday life (levels 3, 4 and 5) with those demonstrating inadequate literacy (levels 1 and 2) on a range of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics as well as behaviours, preferences and self-perceptions.

Literacy of Western Australians

Western Australians performed at slightly above the national average in each of the five literacy domains, as presented in the graph below.

Graph: Proportion at Level 3 or Above 2006, by Literacy domains

Slightly higher proportions of Western Australians had literacy skill at Level 3 or above in each of the five domains in comparison with the other States and Territories except for the ACT, whose residents considerably outperformed those in the rest of the nation. Differences between the jurisdictions may reflect the relative age of their populations and associated factors such as years of schooling, educational attainment and whether English is the main language spoken at home.

Comparison of the results from the 1996 and 2006 surveys shows that the proportion of Western Australians with literacy skills of Level 3 or above hardly varied in that time, remaining at about 55% for both prose and document literacy.

Perceptions of literacy

When asked to rate their reading, writing and maths skills, Western Australians tended to rate themselves higher than their measured literacy level would indicate. This disparity between measured and perceived literacy was consistent across all States and Territories. For example, 14% of Western Australians surveyed were assessed as having a prose literacy skill level of 1 but only 3% self-rated their reading skills in the lowest category ('poor'). Similarly, 16% of those surveyed were assessed at level 4/5 in the prose literacy domain but a much larger proportion (50%) rated their reading skills as 'excellent'.

Skill levels by literacy domain

The graph below shows the distribution of literacy skills, within each of the five domains, for Western Australians aged 15-74 years.

Graph: Literacy Skills Levels, Western Australia, by Literacy domains

Problem solving caused the greatest difficulty for Western Australians, with more than two-thirds (69%) assessed as having skill levels 1 or 2, that is insufficient planning and reasoning ability to meet the complex demands of everyday life. Only 5% had a measured skill level of 4 or 5 in problem solving.

The numeracy domain had a more even distribution of scores, with similar proportions of individuals being at skill level 1 (20%) and levels 4/5 (16%); and similar proportions at level 2 (32%) and level 3 (33%). Thus, just under half (49%) were assessed as having the numeracy skills needed for everyday life.

Western Australians fared best in prose and document literacy, with around 56% in each case assessed at Level 3 or above. However in both domains there was still a sizable minority assessed as Level 1 (14% for prose literacy and 15% for document literacy).

Only 5% of adult Western Australians scored a level 4 or 5 in health literacy, similar to the proportion for problem solving. However, there were considerably fewer Western Australians at the lowest skill level (16%) in health literacy than problem solving (32%), with higher proportions distributed across the middle levels (41% and 38% for levels 2 and 3 respectively).

These patterns were consistent with the survey results in other states and territories. Problem solving had the highest proportions of people at Level 1 or 2 in all jurisdictions and prose and document literacy had the highest proportions of people at level 3 or above.

Demographic factors

In 2006, the literacy of males and females varied according to the domain in question. Females were more likely than males to have a literacy level of 3 or above for prose (60% versus 53%), problem solving (33% versus 29%) and health (46% versus 41%) but males were more likely to have a literacy level of 3 or above for numeracy (53% versus 45%) and document (58% versus 54%) literacy. These results reflect the gender assumption often made that males generally outperform females at maths (and perhaps even some spatially-oriented tasks such as map reading) while females demonstrate considerably stronger skills in language.

Graph: Proportion at Skill Level 3 or Above, by Sex, Western Australia

Source: Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, State and Territory Tables, 2006 (cat. no. 4228.0.55.005)

Literacy was found to be lowest in older Western Australians, with those aged 65-74 years having the smallest proportion at skill level 3 or above (ranging from 13% for problem solving to 31% for prose) in all five domains. Factors contributing to this result may be the large proportion of migrants in this older age category (hence larger proportions of people from non-English speaking backgrounds) and generally fewer years of completed schooling.

At the national level, there is some evidence to suggest that the association between age and literacy is, in part, a function of years of schooling. The national data (for which finer age breakdowns are available) show that, among persons 15-24 years, those aged 20-24 years were likely to perform better, in all literacy domains, than those aged 15-19 years, many of whom would not have completed their education.

Graph: Proportion of Western Australian at Skill Level 3 or ABove, Selected domains, by Age

Educational Attainment

The 2006 survey showed that literacy level generally increased as level of education increased. Of those Western Australians who had completed 16 or more years of formal education, 83% had an assessed skill level of 3 or above on the Prose literacy scale compared with 62% of those with 11 to 15 years of formal education and 31% of those with formal education of 10 years or less.

Graph: Proportion of Western Australians at Skill Level 3 or Above, Selected domains, by Years of formal education

A further comparison of adults with and without non-school qualifications (including degrees, diplomas and certificates) shows that, in all domains, those with a qualification had higher levels of literacy than those without . The greatest difference was in prose literacy, where two-thirds (66%) with a non-school qualification group had a skill level of 3 or above compared with only 45% of those without a qualification.

Problem solving again showed the poorest results even among people with such qualifications. Only a little over one third (37%) of this more highly qualified group were assessed as having sufficient literacy skills (level 3 or above) in problem solving.

Graph: Proportion of Western Australian at Skill Level 3 or Above, Selected domains, with and without non-school qualification

Source: Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, State and Territory Tables, 2006 (cat. no. 4228.0.55.005)

Informal learning

The 2006 survey collected information on participation in a range of informal learning activities; that is, activities undertaken with the intention to learn. Such activities could include visiting a trade fair or expo, attending a lecture or seminar, reading a manual, reference book or journal, going to a museum, watching a documentary, or doing research on the internet. For an activity to qualify as informal learning, the individual must be actively seeking to learn through the activity (that is, the learning is not just an incidental result).

Participation in informal learning was found to be greater among Western Australians who displayed higher levels of literacy. Of those who reported participation in informal learning activities in the previous 12 months, 60% had a prose literacy level of 3 or higher, in comparison with only 22% of those who had not undertaken any informal learning in the previous 12 months. It is important to acknowledge that these results do not indicate causality since the link between literacy level and participation in informal learning activity may be a two-way process (as with other apparently related factors). That is, those with higher literacy skills may be more likely to seek informal learning opportunities than those with lower literacy skills and, in turn, those who engage in informal learning may be more likely to develop their literacy skills as a result of that learning.

Labour force status

In 2006, literacy levels across all domains were associated with labour force status. For example, of those in the employed labour force (full-time or part-time), 62% had prose literacy scores of Level 3 or above, as compared with only 40% of those not employed (unemployed or not in the labour force). The pattern was similar for document literacy, where the equivalent proportions were 63% and 37%.

Literacy scores were again lowest in the area of problem-solving, with only 20% of Western Australians who were not employed assessed as having problem solving literacy of level 3 or higher. Better results were recorded for the employed, with 35% having the problem solving skills necessary to meet the complex demands of everyday life.

Graph: Proportion of Western Australians at Skill Level 3 or Above, Selected domains, by Labour Force Statust

Income and Occupation

Consistent with the labour force status results, a higher median income was found among those with higher literacy. In terms of prose literacy, for example, Western Australians with a score at level 1 had a median weekly wage of only $316; this compares with $577 for level 2, $723 for level 3, and $792 for Levels 4/5.

In an occupational breakdown, Professionals and Managers had the highest literacy levels, with 86% and 68% respectively assessed as being at Level 3 or above for prose literacy. Machinery operators and drivers had the lowest literacy skill levels, with only 38% assessed as having prose literacy skills at Level 3 or above. This pattern was also observable for the other literacy domains, except problem solving, where technicians and trade workers had the poorest performance (only 16% at Level 3 or above).

It is of interest to note that Labourers tended to perform better than Machine operators and drivers in all domains, perhaps reflecting a higher proportion of casual and temporary labourers still in full-time or part-time education in this relatively unskilled occupation group (For more details of the occupation categories, refer to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations.).

Selected domains, by Occupation
Graph: Proportion of Western Australians at Skill Level 3 or Above Selected domains, by Occupation
Source: Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, State and Territory Tables, 2006 (cat. no. 4228.0.55.005)

Leisure activities

Western Australians with higher literacy levels were found to watch less television, read more, and use a computer or access the Internet more than Western Australians with literacy levels of less than 3.

Of those aged 15-74 years with a prose literacy skill level of 1 or 2, 43% reported watching television, videos or DVDs between two and five hours per day, while 10% watched more than five hours per day. The comparable proportions for those with a higher prose literacy levels were 37% and less than 5% respectively.

A higher proportion of those with a prose literacy skill level of 3 or above (39%) than those with a prose literacy skill level of 1 or 2 (18%) 'strongly agreed' that reading was a favourite activity. Similarly, of those who reported that they did not read the newspaper, 72% had document literacy skills of Level 1 or 2.

Patterns of computer and Internet usage also varied with the level of assessed literacy. Of those with a document literacy level below 3, almost one third (32%) reported that they did not use these facilities whereas the comparable proportion for those with higher literacy levels was only 4%.


Table: Literacy Levels by Selected Leisure Activities, Western Australia
Source: Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, State and Territory Tables, 2006 (cat. no. 4228.0.55.005)


Western Australians performed slightly above the national average on all of the literacy domains measured in the 2006 survey. However, almost seven out of ten (69%) had poor problem solving skills (levels 1 or 2) while, for the other four domains, approximately half ( ranging from 44% to 57%) were assessed as below the minimum literacy requirement deemed necessary to function effectively in a complex society. In addition, the prose and document literacy levels of Western Australians have not significantly changed between 1996 and 2006.

In 2006, the behavioural profile of adults with poor literacy skills was different from those with higher levels of literacy. Individuals with poor literacy were more likely to watch television; less likely to enjoy reading or use a computer or the Internet; and less likely to participate in both formal and informal learning activities.

Literacy was found to be poorest in the older age groups, among those with lower levels of education and those who were not in the employed labour force. Lower income was also associated with lower literacy.

Recent COAG agreements have targeted literacy development as an important component of education and workforce reform over the next few years. ABS survey findings, including those from the Survey of Adult Competencies, scheduled for 2011, may assist in providing the performance indicators required as well as the data for future evidence-based government policy.


Literacy and Lifelong Learning: Social Justice for All, June 2001 Sidoti, C., Paper delivered to ACAL Forum
National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development: Baseline Performance Report for 2008, COAG Reform Council
Aspects of Literacy: Assessed Skill Levels, Australia, 1996 (ABS cat. no. 4228.0)
Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, Summary Results, Australia, 2006 (ABS cat. no. 4228.0)
Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey: State and Territory Tables, 2006 (ABS cat. no. 4228.0.55.004)
Population by Age and Sex, Australian States and Territories, June 2006 (ABS cat. no. 3201.0)
ANZSCO - Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations First Edition, Revision 1, 2009 (ABS cat. no. 1220.0)

Statistics Canada