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Adult literacy and numeracy in New Zealand - Key factors

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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

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Key factors in combination

The key factors associated with higher prose literacy and numeracy, as identified in this report, were higher levels of education (upper secondary, tertiary non-degree or degree), computer use at work and/or at home, and English as first and main home language. Taken together, these factors account for a considerable amount of the variation among people aged 25-65 in prose literacy and numeracy, as indicated in the discussion of statistical models in Appendix A. The statistical models provide one method of analysing the interplay of these factors.

This chapter takes a more straightforward descriptive approach to the way these three factors interact, and begins by simplifying the picture by choosing one variable to represent each of the three factors.

Combined effects of education, computer use and language

To represent the combined effects of these three key factors, completed education can be simplified to lower secondary (Year 11 or less) as opposed to upper secondary or tertiary, computer use to use of a computer at work or not, and language to English as first language or not. When used in a simplified statistical model, these three variables can account for 32 to 33 per cent of variation in prose literacy or numeracy (see Appendix A).

There are two distinct alternatives to using a computer at work, namely not being employed, or being employed but not using a computer at work. Consequently we can define 12 categories which combine education (2 alternatives), computer use (3 alternatives) and language (2 alternatives).

Rates of low prose literacy and numeracy

Figures 83 and 84 show the percentages of people aged 25-65 with low prose literacy and numeracy (Levels 1-2)21 in each of the 12 combined categories. The patterns for prose literacy and numeracy were very similar, and in both cases the twelve categories can be clustered into four groups.


Figure 83: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with low prose literacy (Levels 1-2) by combined effect of language, education, employment and work computer use

Image of Figure 83: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with low prose literacy (Levels 1-2) by combined effect of language, education, employment and work computer use.
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 84: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with low numeracy (Levels 1-2) by combined effect of language, education, employment and work computer use

Image of Figure 84: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with low numeracy (Levels 1-2) by combined effect of language, education, employment and work computer use.
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).


At one extreme, almost all of those whose first language was not English and whose highest completed education was lower secondary or less had low prose literacy and low numeracy. It was not clear whether using a computer at work made a difference within this group. Only a small proportion did so, and so the margin of error for the computer users was large.

The second group, of whom approximately 70 to 90 per cent had low literacy or low numeracy, comprised firstly people whose first language was not English, who had upper secondary or tertiary education, who either were not employed or were employed but did not use a computer at work, and secondly people whose first language was English, who had a lower secondary education or less, who were either not employed or employed but did not use a computer at work. Also possibly belonging to this group was the small category of people whose first language was not English, who had lower secondary education or less but did use a computer at work.

Another way of describing these first two groups is to say that they consist of those categories where at most one of the characteristics (English as first language, upper secondary or tertiary, work computer use) favoured higher literacy and numeracy.

Of the third group, 30 to 70 per cent had low prose literacy or numeracy. There were three categories in this group:

  • people who did not have English as a first language, who had upper secondary or tertiary education and used a computer at work
  • people whose first language was English, who had lower secondary education or less, who used a computer at work
  • people whose first language was English, who had upper secondary or tertiary education, who either were not employed or were employed but did not use a computer at work


Another way of describing this third group is to say that it consists of those categories where two of the characteristics (English as first language, upper secondary or tertiary, work computer use) favoured higher literacy and numeracy.

Of the remaining group, approximately 20 to 30 per cent had low prose literacy or numeracy (in other words, about 70 to 80 per cent had higher prose literacy or numeracy). This group consisted of the single category of people whose first language was English, who had an upper secondary or tertiary education and who used a computer at work. In other words, this group had all three of the key characteristics favouring higher literacy and numeracy.

There was one small difference between the patterns for prose literacy and numeracy. For prose literacy, the category of people who had English as a first language, who had upper secondary or tertiary education, and who were not employed, was distinct from all other categories. The percentage of this category with low prose literacy was significantly greater than for the corresponding category who used a computer at work, but was also significantly smaller than among the next three categories, namely:

  • those with English as a first language, and with upper secondary or tertiary education, who were employed but did not use a computer at work
  • those with English as a first language and with lower secondary education or less, who used a computer at work
  • those whose first language was not English, who had upper secondary or tertiary education, who used a computer at work


For numeracy, this category (English as first language, upper secondary or tertiary, not employed) was not significantly different from the three bulleted categories.

On the basis of the broad pattern of the clustering of these results (overlooking the minor difference between prose literacy and numeracy), there is a simpler way of representing them, using the number of major characteristics favouring higher prose literacy or numeracy, namely:

  • English as first language
  • upper secondary or tertiary education
  • using a computer at work


The number of characteristics can range from zero (which corresponds to the category of people without English as first language, with lower secondary or less education, and no work computer use) to three (which corresponds to the category of people with English as a first language, with upper secondary or tertiary education, and using a computer at work). This number of characteristics favouring higher prose literacy and numeracy will be referred to as the key factor scale. Figures 85 and 86 show the percentages of people aged 25-65 with low prose literacy and low numeracy according to this key factor scale. There are clear and significant differences between each group defined by the key factor scale.


Figure 85: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with low prose literacy according to the key factor scale
Image of Figure 85: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with low prose literacy according to the key factor scale.
Notes:

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

 

Figure 86: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with low numeracy according to the key factor scaleImage of Figure 86: Percentage of people aged 25-65 with low numeracy according to the key factor scale.
Notes:

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


Of the people who had none of the three key characteristics favouring higher literacy or numeracy, an estimated 97 per cent had low prose literacy, and 97 per cent also had low numeracy. Of those with one key characteristic favouring higher literacy or numeracy, 77 per cent had low prose literacy and 83 per cent had low numeracy. Of those with a key factor scale value of 2, 49 per cent had low prose literacy and 56 per cent had low numeracy, while among those with all three characteristics favouring higher prose literacy or numeracy, 20 per cent had low prose literacy and 27 per cent had low numeracy.

Breakdowns of low prose literacy and numeracy groups

Another way to look at low prose literacy and numeracy is in terms of the composition of the groups of people with low prose literacy and numeracy.

Among the estimated 893,000 people aged 25-65 with low prose literacy (Levels 1-2), 704,000 (79 per cent) had at least one of the characteristics of non-English first language, lower secondary education or less, not being employed in the past year, or being employed but not using a computer at work. 237,000 (27 per cent) had non-English first language, 358,000 (40 per cent) had lower secondary education or less, 190,000 (21 per cent) were not employed, and 335,000 (38 per cent) were employed but did not use a computer at work.

However there was considerable overlap between these categories. Of those with low prose literacy, 63,000 (7 per cent) had both non-English first language and lower secondary education or less. 63,000 (7 per cent) had non-English first language and were not employed. 87,000 (10 per cent) had non-English first language and were employed but did not use a work computer. 107,000 (12 per cent) had lower secondary education or less and were also not employed. 149,000 (17 per cent) had lower secondary education or less and were employed but did not use a computer at work.

Finally, 26,000 (3 per cent) of those with low prose literacy had the combination of non-English first language, lower secondary education or less and not being employed. Similarly, 29,000 (3 per cent) had the combination of non-English first language, lower secondary or less, and being employed but not using a work computer.

Among the estimated 1,040,000 people aged 25-65 with low numeracy (Levels 1-2), 781,000 (75 per cent) had at least one of the characteristics of non-English first language, lower secondary education or less, not being employed in the past year, or being employed but not using a computer at work. 233,000 (22 per cent) had non-English first language, 396,000 (38 per cent) had lower secondary education or less, 225,000 (22 per cent) were not employed, and 370,000 (36 per cent) were employed but did not use a computer at work.

There was a similar degree of overlap between these numeracy categories as between prose literacy categories. Of those with low numeracy, 63,000 (6 per cent) had both non-English first language and lower secondary education or less. 64,000 (6 per cent) had non-English first language and were not employed. 88,000 (8 per cent) had non-English first language and were employed but did not use a work computer. 120,000 (12 per cent) had lower secondary education or less and were also not employed. 162,000 (16 per cent) had lower secondary education or less and were employed but did not use a computer at work.

Finally, 26,000 (3 per cent) of those with low numeracy had the combination of non-English first language, lower secondary or less and not being employed. Similarly, 28,000 (3 per cent) had the combination of non-English first language, lower secondary or less, and being employed but not using a work computer.

Figures 87 and 88 show breakdowns of the low prose literacy and low numeracy groups according to the key factor scale. The bulk (approximately 70 per cent) of people with low prose literacy or with low numeracy had one or two characteristics favouring higher prose literacy or numeracy. Even though almost all people with none of the characteristics (first language not English, low education, no work computer use) had low prose literacy or numeracy, they represented a small proportion of the low prose literacy group (6 per cent) and of the low numeracy group (5 per cent). And even though a small minority of people with all three characteristics (i.e. people with English as a first language, upper secondary or tertiary education, and work computer use) had low prose literacy or numeracy, these people represented about a quarter of all those with low prose literacy (21 per cent) or numeracy (25 per cent).


Figure 87: Breakdown of group of low prose literacy people aged 25-65 by key factor scale
Image of Figure 87: Breakdown of group of low prose literacy people aged 25-65 by key factor scale.
Notes:

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

 

Figure 88: Breakdown of group of low numeracy people aged 25-65 by key factor scaleImage of Figure 88: Breakdown of group of low numeracy people aged 25-65 by key factor scale.
Notes:

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


A salient feature of the groups with low prose literacy and low numeracy was the relatively large percentages that did not use a computer at work (59 per cent of those with low prose literacy, and 57 per cent of those with low numeracy). There was in fact a large overlap between the groups of people with low prose literacy or numeracy and the group of people who did not use a computer at work (i.e. were not employed or were employed but did not use a computer use at work). A majority of people who did not use a computer at work had low prose literacy or numeracy, and a majority of those with low prose literacy and numeracy did not use a computer at work.

Breakdowns of higher prose literacy and numeracy groups

Of the estimated 1,230,000 people with higher prose literacy, 1,137,000 (92 per cent) had English as a first language, 1,073,000 had upper secondary or tertiary education (87 per cent) and 930,000 (76 per cent) used a computer at work. There was a great deal of overlap between these groups: 1,136,000 (92 per cent) had at least two of these characteristics, and 776,000 (63 per cent) had all three characteristics.

Of the estimated 1,083,000 people with higher numeracy, 986,000 (91 per cent) had English as a first language, 964,000 had upper secondary or tertiary education (89 per cent) and 852,000 (79 per cent) used a computer at work. As with prose literacy, there was a great deal of overlap between these higher numeracy groups: 1,015,000 (94 per cent) had at least two of these characteristics, and 706,000 (65 per cent) had all three characteristics.

Figures 89 and 90 show the breakdowns of the groups with higher prose literacy and higher numeracy according to the key factor scale.


Figure 89: Breakdown of group with higher prose literacy by key factor scale
Image of Figure 89: Breakdown of group with higher prose literacy by key factor scale.
Notes:

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


Figure 90: Breakdown of group with higher numeracy by key factor scaleImage of Figure 90: Breakdown of group with higher numeracy by key factor scale.
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 summary, there was a large overlap between the groups of people with higher prose literacy or numeracy and the group of people with the combination of upper secondary or tertiary education, English as a first language, and computer use at work. A majority of people with all three characteristics had higher prose literacy and numeracy, and a majority of those with higher prose literacy and numeracy had all three characteristics.

Footnote

  1. In this case the estimates of percentages with low prose literacy and numeracy are more reliable than those for higher prose literacy and numeracy.

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