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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

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Summary

Key factors associated with English prose literacy and numeracy

Level of education completed
– upper secondary and tertiary education (and especially degree qualifications) are associated with higher literacy and numeracy, and lower secondary education (or less) with low literacy and numeracy.
First language and main language spoken at home
– people with English as a first language have a considerable advantage, especially in English literacy, but also in numeracy tested in English. People whose first language is not English are at less of a disadvantage if their main home language is English.
Computer use at work and at home

– A significant new finding is that computer use is strongly associated with higher literacy and numeracy, especially the combination of work and home computer use. Computer use is particularly prevalent in managerial, professional, technical and clerical occupations, is associated with intensive and extensive literacy and numeracy practices, and is associated with involvement in ongoing education and/or training. Work computer use or non-use divides jobs broadly into those that require higher literacy and numeracy and those that don’t. Home computer use is associated with greater involvement in personal literacy activities.

There is a large overlap between the groups of people with low literacy and low numeracy, and the group of people who do not use a computer at work.



This report is based on data from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey 2006. It analyses a number of variables that account for variation in skills within New Zealand. It explores their relationships with English prose literacy1 and numeracy among people aged 25-65.2 These variables include:

  • Level of education completed, and recent further education and/or training
  • Labour force status
  • Computer use at work and at home
  • Occupation, industry and income
  • First language, main language spoken at home, place of birth and ethnic identification
  • Age and gender

There were significant variations in literacy and numeracy related to all of these variables. 

Characteristics of groups with higher prose literacy and numeracy

The percentage of people aged 25-65 having higher prose literacy and numeracy (ALL Levels 3, 4 and 5) was greater among groups of people with the following characteristics:

  • Completion of upper secondary or tertiary education
  • Taking formal or non-formal courses in the past year
  • Labour force status of employed or student
  • Being employed and using a computer at work
  • Using a computer at home
  • Especially, the combination of using a computer at work AND using a computer at home
  • Being a manager, professional or technician
  • Working in finance, business or community services (which include education and health)
  • Having an annual gross personal income of $40,000 or more
  • Having English as a first language
  • Having English as the main language spoken in the home
  • Being born in New Zealand
  • Having European or ‘Other’ ethnic identification
  • Younger age
  • Being male (for numeracy)

Characteristics of groups with low prose literacy and numeracy

Conversely, the percentage of people aged 25-65 having higher prose literacy and numeracy (ALL Levels 3, 4 and 5) was less, that is, the percentage of people having low prose literacy and numeracy (Levels 1 and 2) was greater, among groups of people with the following characteristics:

  • Lower secondary education or less
  • Not taking formal or non-formal courses in the past year
  • Labour force status of unemployed, retired, homemaker or other
  • Being employed but not using a computer at work
  • Not having access to a computer at home, or using a home computer rarely
  • Especially, the combination of not using a computer at work AND not using a computer at home
  • Being a machine operator or elementary worker
  • Working in any of the following industries:
    • Wholesale and retail trade, transport and communications
    • Manufacturing and construction
    • Agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining
  • Having an annual gross personal income of less than $40,000
  • Not having English as a first language
  • Having a language other than English as the main language spoken in the home
  • Being born outside New Zealand
  • Having Māori, Pasifika or Asian ethnic identification
  • Older age
  • Being female (for numeracy)

Statistical modelling

Many of the variables studied have strong associations with each other, e.g. computer use at work, occupation and industry. To clarify the picture, statistical models were developed to account for these associations and pinpoint variables with particularly strong associations with prose literacy and numeracy. Three complementary factors stood out:

  • Level of education completed
  • First language and main language spoken at home
  • Computer use at work and at home

These three key factors – education, language and computer use – can then provide a basic framework for analysing regional and other differences in literacy and numeracy.

The statistical modelling also identified significant secondary factors which can help refine analyses of differences in literacy and numeracy, including:

  • Occupation
  • Ethnic identification
  • Age
  • Gender

The secondary factor of ethnic identification applies only to people whose first language is English, and reflects an advantage for Europeans and a disadvantage for Māori and Pasifika, especially in numeracy, within this language subgroup.

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. When 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.

Key factor: Education

There was a strong association between level of education completed and the percentage of people with higher prose literacy or numeracy. People whose highest completed level was lower secondary (Year 11 or less) were much less likely to have higher prose literacy or numeracy (i.e. more likely to have low prose literacy or numeracy) compared with people who had completed upper secondary or tertiary education. People who had completed bachelors or postgraduate degrees were much more likely than those who had not, to have higher prose literacy and especially higher numeracy.

Educational qualifications have often been used as approximate indicators of literacy and numeracy. Previous analyses of the ALL survey data have highlighted a number of situations in which educational qualifications do not give a good guide to literacy or numeracy skills. This study provides a broader basis for this caution.

Key factor: Language

The ability to correctly interpret and respond to English-language literacy and numeracy tests clearly depends on English language proficiency. 10 per cent of people aged 25 to 65 had a language other than English as first language and as main home language, and another 5 per cent had a first language other than English but English as main home language.

There was a strong association between these language categories and higher prose literacy and numeracy. A majority of people with English as a first language had higher prose literacy and higher numeracy, while only a minority of people whose first language was not English had higher prose literacy or numeracy. Among those people whose first language was not English, those whose main home language was English were more likely to have higher prose literacy than those whose main home language was not English.

After controlling for other factors, the average difference in literacy and numeracy between people with English as a first and main home language and those with another language as first language and main home language was of a similar order to the difference between people with degrees and those with lower secondary education. The difference was greater for prose literacy than for numeracy.

After controlling for other factors, the average difference in literacy and numeracy between people with English as a first and main home language and those with another language as first language but English as main home language was of a similar order to the difference between people with degrees and those with upper secondary education.

Key factor: Computer use

After controlling for other factors, the average difference in literacy and numeracy between people who used a computer at work and people who were either not employed, or were employed but did not use a computer at work, was of a similar order to the difference between people with degrees and those with upper secondary education.

There was a similar but smaller difference between people who used a computer at home and those who did not.

Use of a computer at work was strongly associated with being employed in managerial, professional, technical or clerical occupations, although a significant proportion of workers in other occupational groups also used computers. People who had used a computer at work in the past year were likely to be involved in a much wider range of regular work activities related to literacy and numeracy than those who had not, and those who were involved in a greater number of types of regular literacy or numeracy activities were more likely to have higher literacy or numeracy. Computer use at work appears to pinpoint, more effectively than occupational categories, those jobs which require or encourage regular literacy and numeracy activities. This probably reflects the importance of the computer as a tool for literacy and numeracy activities. The difference in mean prose literacy and numeracy between work computer users and non-users within occupations was comparable with the difference between occupations, and was considerably greater than the differences between industries.

Similarly, people who used a computer at home were more likely to engage in a wide range of regular personal reading activities. There was a straightforward relationship between increase in the number of types of regular personal reading and higher literacy and numeracy scores.

Combination of key factors

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.

About half the people who lacked just one of these key characteristics had low literacy or numeracy. The majority of people with none or only one of the key characteristics had low literacy or numeracy.

Of people aged 25-65 with low prose literacy or numeracy, those with lower secondary education or less, and those whose first language was not English, were considerably over-represented. A majority of people with low prose literacy or numeracy had not used a computer at work in the past year, just as a majority of those who had not used a computer at work had low prose literacy and numeracy.

This high degree of overlap between the groups of people with low prose literacy and low numeracy, and the group who had limited or no use of computers is of considerable importance. It indicates that programmes seeking to use information and communication technologies in improving people’s literacy and numeracy need to take into account their likely lack of proficiency in using computers. Programmes aimed at introducing non-computer users to ICT need to allow for the likely low literacy and numeracy of learners. It also indicates that there may be scope for combining upskilling in ICT and literacy and numeracy in integrated programmes.

Footnotes

  1. Level of understanding of continuous text.
  2. This age range was chosen so that completed education and variables related to employment would be relevant to most people.

 


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