Literacy skills of young adult New Zealanders

Publication Details

This report explores how the literacy of young adults (aged 16-24) in New Zealand varies according to a wide range of factors. Literacy here refers to literacy in English only, and the main aspect of literacy considered is document literacy, which refers to the ability to read and interpret non-continuous texts, such as tables, diagrams and maps. To highlight the relationships of the factors with the document literacy scores of young adults, comparisons are made with the effects of the factors in the population aged 25-65.

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

Date Published: June 2011

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Executive Summary

Key findings

Technology Use

  • For people aged 16-24, literacy scores increased as number of hours of home computer use increased. Computer use for playing games or online chat made no difference to literacy. Literacy scores were related to computer use for language-related activities e.g. writing, editing, email, and these were predominant uses of home computers.

Language and ethnicity

  • For people aged 16-24, there was no difference in literacy between those born in New Zealand or overseas, or those with or without English as a first language. By way of contrast, these factors made a huge difference for people aged 25-65.
  • Asians aged 16-24 had comparable English literacy to Europeans, unlike Asians aged 25-65.
  • The key factor appears to be experience of New Zealand education. Most young Asians had several years of New Zealand education, sufficient to develop better English literacy skills than the older generation. Young Asians also had advantages in family background, tertiary participation and computer use, although they still had a disadvantage in terms of home language use.

Other factors

  • Findings relating to other characteristics were in line with previous research on literacy and on educational achievement.
  • One such finding was that people who watched television or videos for 5 or more hours per day had lower literacy on average. Another was that those who never used a library had lower literacy than those who used a library even infrequently.

Contribution of this report

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey 2006 measured the literacy and numeracy skills of New Zealanders aged 16-65. A series of previous studies of the survey data have shown differences in literacy and numeracy according to a range of individual characteristics, including completed education, age, gender, geographical region, ethnicity, immigrant status, first language, labour force status, occupation and industry.

This report adds to previous work in two ways:

  • by highlighting the literacy skills of people aged 16-24, and how they vary according to a wide range of factors
  • by analysing the effects of a number of previously under-studied factors, namely:
    • purposes of computer use
    • mobile phone use
    • watching television and videos
    • library use
    • number of books in the home
    • patterns of personal reading

This report complements the report Factors linked to young adult literacy, which is also based on the ALL survey.

Limitations of the analysis

Because the analysis is based on survey and not census data, and the sample of young adults is relatively small (1,082), estimates and comparisons are subject to uncertainty (sampling error).

Findings

Technology use

Young adults who made greater use of information and communication technologies tended to have higher document literacy scores. This applied in particular to young adults who used a home computer for 5 or more hours per month (and scores increased with increasing hours of use), as opposed to young adults who used a home computer for fewer hours, or did not have access to a home computer, or had never used a computer.

Young adults who had used a computer at work in the past year tended to have higher document literacy scores than those who had not used a computer at work, or who had not been employed. This was not as strong as the effect for home computer use for young adults, and was not such a strong effect for young adults as it was for people aged 25-65.
Young adults who were frequent users of email tended to have higher document literacy scores, and among those aged 20-24, those who used a computer frequently for writing or editing tended to have higher scores. There was no significant difference in document literacy between those who played computer games frequently and those who did not, nor was there a significant effect for frequency of participation in online discussions.

Young adults who never used a mobile phone tended to have lower document literacy scores, but there were very few young adults in this category.

Literacy-related resources and practices

Document literacy scores tended to be higher among young adults who used a library at least once or twice a year, than among those who never used a library. Document literacy scores also tended to be higher among those who read at least three different types of personal reading matter at least weekly, among those with 25 or more books in the home, and among those who watched television, videos or DVDs for two hours or less per day. Those who watched for five or more hours per day tended to have lower document literacy scores.

When other factors (including main home language, ethnic identification, education, and home computer use) were controlled for, only library use made a difference to document literacy scores (library use may be a good indicator of people who have achieved higher literacy). In particular, the relationship between document literacy and television/video/DVD watching was accounted for by those other variables.

Education

Young adults with greater educational participation tended to have higher document literacy scores. In particular, scores tended to be higher among those who had completed tertiary education, and considerably lower among those whose highest completed level was Year 10 or less. Young adults who had undertaken formal full-time study or training in the past year tended to have higher document literacy than those who had not.

Young adults who had studied at degree level in the past year, or had completed a degree, stood out as having particularly high document literacy scores. There was some evidence that such people tended to have higher literacy before undertaking degree-level study, but this does not mean that degree-level study did not also enhance literacy.

Young adults who reported that they had received good grades in school mathematics tended to have higher document literacy. Mathematics grades can be taken as an indicator of overall school achievement.

Labour force status and employment

Document literacy scores tended to be considerably higher among young adults whose current labour force status was student or employed than among those with other labour force status (unemployed, retired, homemaker or other status).

Young adults with different combinations of employment and study or training undertaken in the past year tended to have different document literacy scores. Those who had been both employed and in study or training had the highest scores, while those who had not been in employment, education or training (NEET) had the lowest scores. However, there were very few young adults in the NEET category in the sample: too few to provide an accurate estimate of numbers in the population.

Among young adults in current employment, document literacy scores tended to be higher among those in white collar occupations (managers, professionals, technicians or clerks), and among those employed in finance, business or community services including education and health.

Demographic characteristics and home background

There was no significant difference in mean document literacy between people aged 16-19 and those aged 20-24. However, the mean document literacy for those aged 16-19 was significantly lower than that for people aged 25-65.

Gender did not make a difference to document literacy scores among the young adults in the ALL survey sample. This is in contrast to the finding of clear gender differences in favour of females in reading literacy in the 2006 PISA (Programme of International Student Assessment) study of 15-year-old students in New Zealand. The sample for PISA was much larger than the sample of young adults in the ALL survey and the greater sensitivity of the PISA study may account for the apparent difference in findings.

Document literacy scores in the ALL survey tended to be higher among young adults whose mothers or fathers had completed tertiary education, especially at bachelors degree level or higher. Scores tended to be considerably lower among those whose mothers or fathers had not completed education beyond Year 10. However, the statistical modelling indicated that the relationship between parental education and document literacy was indirect: young adults' level of education tends to approximately reflect that of their parents, while it is the young adults' own education that relates directly to their literacy.

Document literacy scores tended to be higher among young adults living in areas of low socioeconomic deprivation (as measured by the New Zealand Deprivation Index), and lower in areas of high deprivation.

Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago (taken together) had a significantly greater percentage of people with higher document literacy than the rest of New Zealand among people aged 25-65, but not among people aged 16-24.

Among people aged 16-24, there was no significant difference in mean document literacy scores between those born in New Zealand and those born overseas, nor was there a significant difference between those whose first language was English or another language. This is in distinct contrast to those aged 25-65, among whom mean document literacy was significantly higher among those born in New Zealand and those whose first language was English.

Document literacy scores tended to be higher among young adults who spoke English most often at home than among those who spoke another language most often.

Among people aged 16-24, those identifying as European or as Asian tended to have higher document literacy scores, while those identifying as Māori or Pasifika tended to have lower scores. This is in line with the results of the 2006 PISA study of 15-year-old students, and in contrast to the ALL survey results for people aged 25-65, among whom those identifying as European tended to have higher scores, while Asians as well as Māori and Pasifika tended to have lower scores.

The factor that appears to make the difference is time spent in education in New Zealand: almost all Asian young adults had spent at least a year in New Zealand education, with a median of five years. According to North American research, typically four years in English-medium education is needed for non-English speaking migrants to start to approach the academic achievements of native English-speaking students, and if they have high levels of academic achievement and literacy in their first language they can then transfer these skills and knowledge into the English-language environment.

Young adults with Asian ethnic identification had a number of advantages in terms of factors linked to higher document literacy scores: a relatively high percentage of their fathers had tertiary education; they had relatively high levels of home computer use; and they had relatively high levels of participation in degree-level study. In contrast, Māori and Pasifika were at a disadvantage in terms of all these factors. The statistical modelling indicates that Asian young adults would have had even higher document literacy scores but for the fact that most had a language other than English as their main home language.

Key factors

The companion report Factors linked to young adult literacy (Lane 2011) developed statistical models for the 16-24 and 25-65 age groups, including most of the variables studied in this report, and identified a set of factors which were most strongly associated with document literacy scores for the 25-65 and 16-24 age groups.

The factors most strongly associated with document literacy scores for people aged 16-24 were:

  • The language spoken most often at home
  • Ethnic identification (among those who spoke English most often at home)
  • Participation and achievement in formal education
  • Use of a computer at home
  • Library use.

The factors most strongly associated with document literacy for people aged 25-65 were:

  • The first language learned, and the language spoken most often at home
  • Ethnic identification (among those who speak English most often at home)
  • Age and gender
  • The highest level of education completed
  • Use of a computer at work
  • Use of a computer at home
  • The number of books in the home.

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