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Adult literacy and numeracy in New Zealand - Key factors

Publication Details

This report explores a range of factors associated with English literacy and numeracy among people aged 25-65, using data from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey 2006. It finds that three key factors can account for a large part of the variation between people in their literacy and numeracy skills: completed education, language background and computer use. Computer use was strongly associated with higher literacy and numeracy, especially the combination of work and home computer use. Computer use was associated with intensive and extensive reading, writing and numeracy practices. Work computer use or non-use divided jobs broadly into those that required higher literacy and numeracy and those that did not. There was a large overlap between the groups of people with low literacy and low numeracy, and the group of people who did not use a computer at work.

Author(s): Chris Lane, Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and Reporting, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010


Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report. This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads/Links' inset box, top right).
Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

Age and gender

The demographic factors considered in this chapter are age, gender, and the interaction of age and gender.

Age

Looking at age in ten-year bands, the main effect in general is that the percentage of people aged 55-65 with higher prose literacy and with higher numeracy was significantly less than for younger age groups, as shown in Figures 71 and 72. To be more precise, the percentage of people aged 55-65 with higher prose literacy was significantly less than that for people age 45-54 or 35-44, but not significantly different from that for people aged 25-34. The percentage of people aged 55-65 with higher numeracy was significantly less than that for each of the younger age groups (45-54, 35-44 and 25-34).


Figure 71: Percentage of people with higher prose literacy (Levels 3-5) by age
Image of Figure 71: Percentage of people with higher prose literacy (Levels 3-5) by age.
Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level)

Gender

There was no significant gender difference in the percentage of people aged 25-65 with higher prose literacy, but there was a significantly greater percentage of men (57 per cent) with higher numeracy than of women (46 per cent), as shown in Figures 73 and 74.


Figure 73: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with higher prose literacy by gender
Image of Figure 73: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with higher prose literacy by gender.
Note:
  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).


Figure 74: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with higher numeracy by genderImage of Figure 74: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with higher numeracy by gender.
Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).


When other factors are not controlled for, men are significantly more likely to have higher numeracy than women, but there is no significant gender difference in prose literacy. In the extended statistical models, where other factors are controlled for, there is a significant positive effect for men in numeracy, and also a significant positive effect for women in prose literacy, which counteracts men’s advantages in other factors including education, employment and computer use.

Age and gender

These are considered together because the two demographic variables interact in interesting ways.

Four categories combining age and gender20 will be compared:

  • Age: 25-44; Gender: Male
  • Age: 25-44; Gender: Female
  • Age: 45-65; Gender: Male
  • Age: 45-65; Gender: Female

There were no significant differences among the four categories in terms of prose literacy, but there were marked differences in numeracy, as shown in Figures 75 and 76. The percentage of people with higher numeracy was less for women than men within both age bands, and the percentage was significantly less for older women than for the other three groups. There was no significant difference between older and younger men, but the percentage was significantly greater for younger women than for older women.


Figure 75: Percentage of people with higher prose literacy, by age and gender

Image of Figure 75: Percentage of people with higher prose literacy, by age and gender.
Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).


Figure 76: Percentage of people with higher numeracy, by age and gender

Image of Figure 76: Percentage of people with higher numeracy, by age and gender.
Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).


These age and gender patterns for prose literacy and numeracy are only partly explained by the basic factors of education, computer use and language.

Figure 77 shows the percentage of people in each age/gender category with upper secondary or tertiary education. A significantly smaller percentage of people in the older age group had reached these levels of education compared with the younger age group, and a significantly smaller percentage of older women had reached these levels compared with older men.


Figure 77: Percentage of people with upper secondary or tertiary education, by age and gender
Image of Figure 77: Percentage of people with upper secondary or tertiary education, by age and gender.
Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).


Before considering computer use at work, it is important to note that there is a marked gender difference in the percentage of people employed. Figure 78 shows the percentage of people employed in the past year in each age/gender group. A significantly greater percentage of men than women were employed in the past year, and a significantly greater percentage of younger than older men.


Figure 78: Percentage of people employed in the past year, by age and gender
Image of Figure 78: Percentage of people employed in the past year, by age and gender.
Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).


In terms of computer use, if we restrict attention to people employed in the past year, younger women were most likely to use a computer at work, and were significantly more likely to do so that younger men, while older women were comparable with older and younger men, as shown in Figure 79.


Figure 79: Percentage of employed people who had used a computer at work in the past year, by age and gender

Image of Figure 79: Percentage of employed people who had used a computer at work in the past year, by age and gender.
Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).

However, men were significantly more likely than women to be employed, so when we look at work computer use across the whole population aged 25-65, older women were significantly less likely to have used a computer at work and younger women were comparable with men, as shown in Figure 80.


Figure 80: Percentage of people who had used a computer at work in the past year, by age and gender

Image of Figure 80: Percentage of people who had used a computer at work in the past year, by age and gender.
Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).

Figure 81 shows the percentage of people using a home computer for 5 or more hours per month by age and gender. Here there was no significant gender difference, but younger people were significantly more likely to use a home computer to that extent than older people.


Figure 81: Percentage of people using a computer at home for 5 or more hours per month, by age and gender
Image of Figure 81: Percentage of people using a computer at home for 5 or more hours per month, by age and gender.
Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).


However, the older men and women were more likely to be native English speakers, as shown in Figure 82.


Figure 82: Percentage of people with English as a first language, by age and gender

Image of Figure 82: Percentage of people with English as a first language, by age and gender.  

Notes:

  1. Source: New Zealand results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ministry of Education calculations.
  2. For an explanation of the categories see Chapter 10. The bars represent the margins of error (at the 95% confidence level).


Older women clearly had less education and were less likely to use a computer at work (because they were less likely to be employed): this partly explains their lower numeracy, but these factors do not appear to have such an effect on prose literacy.

Because the basic factors of education, computer use and language do not fully account for the age and gender distribution of higher prose literacy and numeracy, it helps to have age and gender factors in the extended models.

In the extended statistical models, being aged 45-65 is a significant negative predictor for numeracy but not a significant predictor for prose literacy, while being male is a positive predictor for numeracy but a negative predictor for prose literacy.

The gender differences may reflect different educational paths for men and women but it is not possible to explore this using the ALL survey because respondents were not asked about their educational history in detail, and so there is no information on such topics as the subjects they studied or for how long they pursued mathematics or other quantitative studies.

Summary

Age

People aged 55-65 were significantly less likely to have higher prose literacy than people aged 45-54 or 35-44, but not significantly less likely than people aged 25-34. People aged 55-65 were significantly less likely to have higher numeracy than people aged 45-54, 35-44 or 25-34.

Gender

The percentage of men and women aged 25-65 with higher prose literacy was not significantly different, but there was a significantly greater percentage of men (57 per cent) with higher numeracy than women (47 per cent).

Age and gender

Age and gender were considered together, with age divided into two bands (25-44 and 45-65) for statistical robustness.

There were no significant differences among the age/gender categories in the percentage with higher prose literacy, but there were significant differences in numeracy. Within each age band, men were significantly more likely to have higher numeracy than women, but younger women were on a par with older men. The percentage of younger and older men with higher numeracy was not significantly different, but younger women were significantly more likely to have higher numeracy than older women. In fact, the percentage of older women with higher numeracy was significantly less than that for each of the other three age/gender groups.

These age/gender patterns were partly accounted for by education, employment, computer use, and first language. The percentages of younger men and women who had completed upper secondary or tertiary education was significantly greater than the percentage of older men, which in turn was significantly greater than the percentage of older women. Men (both older and younger) were significantly more likely to have been employed in the past year than women (both older and younger). Among those who had been employed, younger women were significantly more likely to have used a computer at work than younger men, while older women’s and older men’s work computer use was not significantly different. Among people aged 25-65 as a whole though, because of women’s lower employment rate, older women were significantly less likely to have used a computer at work than any of the other three age/gender groups. Younger women and men were significantly more likely to use a computer at home than both older women and older men. On the other hand, older men and women were significantly more likely to be native speakers of English.

In particular, these factors would appear to account for the relatively small percentage of older women with higher numeracy, but not for the fact that the percentage of older women with higher prose literacy is comparable with that of the other age/gender groups. Similarly, these factors account satisfactorily for the percentage of younger men and women with higher prose literacy being comparable, but not for the fact that younger men were significantly more likely to have higher numeracy than younger women.

These anomalies are dealt with in the extended statistical models by including age and gender variables, with being older a negative predictor of higher numeracy, and being male a negative predictor of higher prose literacy but a positive predictor of higher numeracy.

These age and gender variables may be proxies for other factors which were not explored in the survey. One possible explanation is that younger and older men and women have had different educational histories, not just in the educational levels they reached, but also in their opportunities and choices to study different subjects at the different levels and to learn different skills, such as mathematical skills. The survey does not go into this kind of detail of educational history.

Footnote

  1. It is necessary to use 20-year age bands in order to obtain statistically robust results for each age/gender category.


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