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FEATURE ARTICLE: ADULT LITERACY AND LIFE SKILLS
In the late 1980s, the US government enlisted two mathematics graduates to devise a way of conducting large-scale testing of skills, which could be achieved with a small number of respondents in a relatively short period of time. The two graduates used a combination of mathematical theory and survey techniques to come up with valid and reliable skill measures. This method is now used as the basis of many literacy testing regimes: one well-known example being PISA: the Programme of International Student Assessments.
In the early 1990s, the US government asked the Canadian statistics agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to be involved in survey development. Mainly through the efforts of a team of researchers from Statistics Canada, the survey instrument that was developed was able to compare adult skills in a range of countries around the world. So the first International Adult Literacy Survey (or IALS) was born. IALS was conducted between 1994 and 1998 in over 20 countries around the world. This survey was run in Australia in 1996 as the ABS Survey of Aspects of Literacy.
A second adult literacy survey of this kind has now been conducted in a range of countries including Australia. As with IALS, the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (known in Australia as 'ALLS') has again been coordinated by Statistics Canada and the OECD. Countries that participated included the United States, Canada, Norway, Bermuda, Mexico, Switzerland, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Hungary and South Korea.
International literacy surveys and studies (footnote 1) of these data provide a number of key findings:
CONDUCT OF SURVEY
Australia participated in the survey between July 2006 and January 2007. In Australia, ALLS was run with funding from the former Department of Education, Science and Training, with some additional funding support from the former Department of Employment and Workplace Relations.
The ALLS involved a random selection of adults aged between 15 and 74 years in the household. The sample size of 8,988 people across Australia included 1,724 people from Victoria. The survey was done by personal interview and involved, first, a background questionnaire and then an objective skills test.
Literacy was assessed in English, as the official language of Australia. It did not assess migrants' skills in their own language, although some information on proficiency in other languages was collected.
Experts in the literacy field made some minor adaptations to survey questions and exercises to ensure that concepts were understood in Australia in the same way as in other countries (for example that prices on goods made sense; use of 'petrol' instead of 'gas').
The scores from the testing procedure were compiled and standardised by the Educational Testing Service in the United States.
The ALLS was designed to identify and objectively measure literacy which can be linked to the social and economic characteristics of people both across and within countries. The ALLS definition of literacy is 'Using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve goals and develop knowledge and potential'. So the ALLS was not only about whether people could read or write - it was about how people understood and applied the knowledge they took in from printed media.
The ALLS provides information on knowledge and skills in the following four domains:
As a by-product of the above four domains, a fifth domain measuring health literacy was produced. The Department of Health and Ageing provided funding to add this component to the results. Health Literacy is defined as the knowledge and skills required to understand and use information relating to health issues such as drugs and alcohol, disease prevention and treatment, safety and accident prevention, first aid, emergencies, and staying healthy.
These domains were scored on a continuous scale of 0 to 500, and grouped into Levels 1 to 5. Level 1 indicates the lowest score and 5 (or 4 for problem solving) is the highest.
In the 2006 ALLS, between 49% and 71% of adults in Victoria had poor or very poor skills across one or more of the five skill domains of prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy, problem-solving and health literacy. This means they did not attain skill Level 3, the level regarded by most experts as a suitable minimum for coping with the increasing and complex demands of modern life and work.
Level 1 tasks tended to require the respondent either to locate a piece of information based on a literal match or to enter information from personal knowledge onto a document. Little, if any, distracting information was present.
Level 2 tasks were more varied than those in Level 1. Some required the respondents to match a single piece of information; however, several distractors may have been present, or the match may have required low-level inferences. Tasks in this level may also have asked the respondent to cycle through information in a document or to integrate information from various parts of a document.
In the document literacy domain, approximately 49% of Victorians aged 15 to 74 years had scores at Level 1 or 2, a further 34% at Level 3 and 17% at Level 4/5. This was similar to results for Australia with comparative scores on the same scale of 47% at Level 1 or 2, 35% at Level 3 and 18% at Level 4/5.
Have document literacy skills improved in 2006?
Two skill domains - prose literacy and document literacy - were tested in 2006 in the same way as in 1996, and therefore data from the two surveys can be directly compared.
In the document literacy domain, the proportion of Victorians at Level 1 decreased from 22% in 1996 to 20% in 2006. During the same period, the proportion of those at Level 2 increased from 27% to 30%. The proportions of Victorians attaining Level 3 (35% to 34%) and Level 4/5 (16% to 17%) changed marginally. None of these changes, however, is statistically significant.
The proportion of Australians at Level 1 in the document literacy domain decreased from 20% in 1996 to 18% in 2006. This was a statistically significant change. In the same period, the proportion of those at Level 2 remained stable, those at Level 3 did not change (36%) and the change at Level 4/5 was not statistically significant.
Victoria had the second highest proportion of people scoring at Level 1 (20%) - only Tasmania was higher (21%) - and the second lowest proportion of people registering Level 3 scores (34%), as shown in the table below. However differences between states and territories averages were not statistically significant.
In 2006, a higher proportion of Victorian males (53.6%) compared to females (48.1%) attained scores of Level 3 or above.
Literacy levels tended to decrease with age, with higher proportions of people in the older age groups in Victoria attaining skill scores lower than Level 3. The exception to this pattern was the 15 to 24 years age group, which had a greater proportion of people with skills below Level 3 than the 25 to 34 year and 35 to 44 year age groups (see the following graph).
The following graph gives more detail of Victorians' skill levels by age group.
A strong association existed between educational attainment and achieved literacy levels. People who had completed a non-school qualification generally had higher literacy scores. On the document literacy scale, 62% of persons who had completed a non-school qualification achieved Level 3 or above, compared to 38% for those who had not completed such a qualification.
Years of formal education
Victorians who had completed 16 to 20 years of formal education had the highest proportion of scores at Level 3 or above (80%), closely followed by those with 21 or more years (79%). In contrast, those with 10 or fewer years of formal education had the lowest proportion of scores at Level 3 or above (22%).
Participation in learning
There were approximately 3.4 million Victorians who reported participating in learning during the 12 months prior to the survey. Learning includes formal learning which is participation in an educational program to obtain a formal qualification. In addition, learning includes informal learning (but not as part of a course) which involves activities such as visiting trade fairs, professional conferences or expos, attending lectures, seminars or workshops, reading manuals or reference books or using computers or the Internet.
Looking at formal learning, in terms of document literacy, of the 1.7 million Victorians who undertook a course leading to an educational qualification during the previous 12 months, 68% achieved scores at Level 3 or above. In contrast, of the people who did not undertake such a course in the previous 12 months, 37% achieved scores at Level 3 or above.
Of those Victorians who had participated in learning (formal and/or informal) during the 12 months prior to the survey, 55% achieved scores at Level 3 or above, while only 14% of those who had not participated in any form of learning during the 12 months prior to the survey achieved scores at Level 3 or above.
Labour force status
Those employed (including both full time and part time employees) had the highest proportion with scores of Level 3 or above (59%).
The unemployed had the highest proportion assessed at Level 1 or 2 (73%), followed by those not in the labour force (68%).
Self-rated English reading skills
Over half of the Victorians surveyed (55%) rated their English reading skills for their daily needs as excellent. Of this subgroup, 66% achieved a literacy score at Level 3 or above. Only 5% of Victorians responding to the survey rated their English reading skills for the needs of daily life as poor compared with 19% who achieved a literacy score at Level 1. Of those who rated their English reading skills for the needs of daily life as poor, 82% achieved scores at Level 1.
CORRELATIONS WITH OTHER DOMAINS
The table below shows the correlations between the various domains of literacy for people in Victoria.
Prose, document, and problem solving scores are very highly correlated (correlation coefficients in excess of 0.95) with each other. In addition, numeracy and the other three literacy domains are highly correlated (correlation coefficients in excess of 0.91). A person whose literacy is high/low in one literacy domain is likely to have high/low skills in other domains as well.
Numeracy relates to the skills required to effectively manage and respond to the mathematical demands of diverse situations. To assess numeracy, individuals had to complete tasks that ranged from simple arithmetic operations through to complex representations and abstract and formal mathematical and statistical ideas.
Level 1 tasks required the respondent to show an understanding of basic numerical ideas by completing simple tasks in concrete, familiar contexts where the mathematical content was explicit with little text. Tasks consisted of simple, one-step operations such as counting, sorting dates, performing simple arithmetic operations or understanding common and simple percents such as 50%.
Level 2 tasks were fairly simple and related to identifying and understanding basic mathematical concepts embedded in a range of familiar contexts where the mathematical content was quite explicit and visual with few distractors. Tasks tended to include one-step or two-step processes and estimations involving whole numbers, benchmark percents and fractions, interpreting simple graphical or spatial representations, and performing simple measurements.
Level 3 tasks required a person to demonstrate an understanding of mathematical information represented in a range of different forms such as in numbers, symbols, maps, graphs, texts, and drawings. Skills required involve number and spatial sense, knowledge of mathematical patterns and relationships and the ability to interpret proportions, data and statistics embedded in relatively simple texts where there may have been distractors. The tasks commonly involved undertaking a number of processes to solve problems.
States and Territories
For numeracy, all of the states and territories, except for the ACT (37%), had more than 50% of people with scores at Level 1 or Level 2.
As shown in the following table, Victoria had the second highest proportion of people scoring at Level 1 (24%) - only Tasmania was higher (26%). In addition, Victoria had the lowest proportion of people scoring at Level 3 (30%). Differences between states and territories were not found to be statistically significant.
Change since 1996
The numeracy domain as measured by the ALLS (2006) goes beyond the quantitative literacy measure used in IALS (1996): as a result, it is not directly comparable with IALS.
Sex and age
Australia, like other countries such as Bermuda and Canada, displays more gender differentiation with numeracy than the other domains. This is highlighted in the graph below where the gender differences for Victoria are greater, across all levels, for numeracy than for document literacy.
In the numeracy domain, a higher proportion of Victorian females scored below Level 3 (61%) than Victorian males (48%). The corresponding proportions for Australia were 58% and 48% respectively. The gender difference existed across all age groups for both Victoria (see the graph below) and Australia.
Numeracy skill levels decreased with age, apart from the skills of the 15-24 year age group which were at lower levels than those of both the 25-34 and 35-44 year age groups.
It is interesting to note the differences between self-assessments of numeracy skills and skill levels found in the survey. When asked whether they were good with numbers and calculations, 52% of Victorians with Level 1 numeracy skills agreed and 18% strongly agreed. For Victorians with Level 2 skills, 54% agreed and 30% strongly agreed (see the following graph).
LITERACY AND GDP
A fairly well-known study using IALS results (footnote 2) found that even a very small upward movement in literacy scores is highly correlated with a significant rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). An increase of 1% in a country’s literacy scores relative to the international average was associated with a 1.5% rise in GDP per capita.
The same study highlights that the increase in literacy rate has the most impact on GDP when movements are realised at the bottom end of the literacy scale (that is, for those under Level 3).
Some of the main points for Victoria are:
For more information on ALLS in Australia, see the ABS website <https://www.abs.gov.au>. Material includes:
For more international information see:
1 For more details, refer to the international information references included at the end of this feature article. <back
2 Coulombe, S et al., Literacy scores, human capital and growth across fourteen OECD countries, 2004, Statistics Canada website, <http://www.statcan.ca>, Catalogue no. 89-552-MIE2004011. <back
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