4228.0 - Aspects of Literacy: Assessed Skill Levels, Australia, 1996  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 08/09/1997   
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September 08, 1997
Embargoed: 11:30 AM (AEST)

Australians' literacy skills put to the test

Almost half of Australians aged 15-74 (6.2 million people) have 'poor' or 'very poor' prose literacy skills. Another 35 per cent (4.7 million) could be expected to cope with many of the demands of daily life, but not always at a high level of proficiency. Some 17 per cent (2.3 million) could be considered to have prose literacy skills of a high order.

Similar results apply to document literacy and quantitative literacy (using numbers embedded in text).

These figures, the result of Australia's first large scale national literacy survey, are contained in the Australian Bureau of Statistics' publication Aspects of Literacy: Assessed Skill Levels, Australia, 1996 (cat. no. 4228.0) which was released today to coincide with International Literacy Day.

The publication contains objective measures of Australians' literacy skills in dealing with the literacy demands of everyday life, such as understanding the information on a medicine label, using a bus timetable, and filling in forms. Information is presented for three literacy scales - prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. For each scale, people's skills are ranked from very poor (Level 1) through to good/very good (Level 4/5).

On all three literacy scales, some 2.6 million people aged 15 to 74 are at Level 1 (very poor literacy skills), and could be expected to face considerable difficulties in using many printed materials that are encountered in everyday life. About 3.6 million people are at Level 2 and could be expected to experience some difficulties. Level 3 is the largest category - the skills of the 4.7 million people at this level would enable them to cope with many printed materials, but not always at a high level. Some 2.3 million people are at Level 4/5, representing good to very good skills and the ability to manage the literacy demands of everyday life.

Other findings from the survey (based on the prose literacy scale) include:

  • Almost half of the people who first spoke a language other than English are at Level 1. This compares with 14 per cent of those who first spoke English. However, the latter group is significantly larger than the former in absolute terms - 1.5 million compared to 1.1 million.
  • Older people generally have poorer skills than do younger people - three quarters of those aged 65 to 74 have Level 1 or 2 skills.
  • High levels of formal education are not necessarily reflected in high literacy abilities - less than half (48 per cent) of people with a degree or postgraduate qualification are at Level 4/5.
  • Twelve per cent of employed people have Level 1 skills and 22 per cent have Level 4/5 skills. For unemployed people the corresponding figures are 30 per cent and 11 per cent.
  • More than half a million people often need help with reading information from government agencies, businesses etc, and just less than half a million often need help filling out forms. Almost all of these people (88 per cent) have Level 1 skills.
  • At the broad level, there are only relatively small differences in the literacy skills of States and Territories. New South Wales and Victoria have the highest proportions of people at Level 1, while the ACT, South Australia and Western Australia have the highest proportions at Level 4/5.
  • Australia's overall literacy skill profile is generally comparable with that of several other developed countries.

Aspects of Literacy: Assessed Skill Levels, Australia, 1996 (cat. no. 4228.0) is available from ABS bookshops. The publication also contains four feature articles written by people with expertise in language and literacy. The titles of these features are:

So - How Many People Can't Read?;

The Quantitative Literacy Performance of Australians: Implications of Low Skill Levels;

Literacy, Numeracy and the Labour Market; and,

Public Policy and Literacy Research Data: Will Knowing Lead to Doing?

The results of the survey, and their implications, will be the topic of a national discussion forum to be hosted by the Australian Council for Adult Literacy (ACAL) on 16 September.