The Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey: Overview and International Comparisons

Publication Details

This report is the first in a series of four that investigate the initial results of the ALL survey. It examines any changes in literacy and numeracy skill between the 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) survey - results collected in New Zealand in 2006. It also compares the results from the New Zealand ALL survey with those from Australia, Canada and the USA.

Author(s): Paul Satherley, Elliot Lawes and Saila Sok, Research Division, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: March 2008

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Executive Summary

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) survey is designed to answer these and other questions:

  • How is literacy skill distributed across the New Zealand adult population?

  • Has there been any change in this distribution over the past 10 years?

  • Do the further education and training activities of New Zealand adults vary according to their literacy skills?

  • How do the skills of adults in New Zealand compare with those of adults from other countries?

Why do we need to answer these questions? The labour-force demands of a modern economy are becoming increasingly complex. If New Zealand is to improve or maintain its position in the world economy, it must develop a workforce with high levels of generic and technical skills. The ALL survey provides an insight into our current skill levels. This insight is essential for the development of any future initiatives to further enhance and maintain these levels. In the longer term, having both the ALL data and data from the 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) gives us a baseline against which to measure change in levels of skills in the New Zealand population.

This report is the first in a series of four that investigates the initial results of the ALL survey. It will present an overview of the distribution of literacy skills in New Zealand, changes to that distribution since 1996, and a comparison of New Zealand's distribution of literacy skills with those of Canada, the USA and Australia.

Key findings

  • From 1996 to 2006 the proportion of the adult population of New Zealand with very low literacy skills reduced substantially, but a proportion with low literacy skills persists.
  • Similar changes have occurred in Canada, the USA and Australia.
  • In New Zealand, the improvement in document literacy skill has been more pronounced than in Canada, the USA and Australia.
  • The adult population of New Zealand has large subpopulations with low numeracy and low problem-solving skills.
  • The adult populations of Canada, the USA and Australia also have large sub-populations with low numeracy skills. In addition, Canada and Australia have large subpopulations with low problem-solving skills1.
  • New Zealand adults with low document literacy skills are less likely to participate in any up-skilling activities than those with higher document literacy skills. However, participation in formal up-skilling does not appear to be affected by adults' document literacy skills.
  • The patterns of up-skilling in New Zealand differ from Canada and the USA, where participation in formal up-skilling was greater amongst those with higher document literacy skills.
  • In New Zealand, established immigrants have higher literacy and numeracy skills, overall, than recent immigrants. Established immigrants also make up a larger proportion of the adult population than recent immigrants.
  • By contrast, in Canada and the USA, recent immigrants have higher literacy and numeracy skills, overall, than established immigrants. There also, established immigrants make up a larger proportion of the adult population than recent immigrants.
  • In New Zealand, immigrants (both recent and established) have higher levels of prose and numeracy skills than both recent and established immigrants in Canada and the USA.

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