Adult Literacy in New Zealand: Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey

Publication Details

Adult literacy is considered to be vital to the economic wellbeing of developed countries. The increasing complexity of our society and the need for a more flexible and highly-educated workforce mean that individuals need to be able to comprehend and apply information of varying difficulty from a range of sources to function effectively at work and in everyday life. Therefore, governments and international organisations are especially keen for some insight into any possible deficiencies in literacy and numeracy skills.

Author(s): Maurice Walker, Karl Udy and Nicholas Pole with assistance from Steve May, Glenn Chamberlain and Fiona Sturrock

Date Published: 1996

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The information presented here provides a summary of the preliminary findings from a survey of adult literacy in New Zealand. The survey was conducted in New Zealand in March 1996, as part of a series of international surveys known as the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). Twenty-four countries participated in IALS.

This is the first comprehensive study of its type in New Zealand and provides us with the opportunity to benchmark ourselves against other comparable nations, to establish a baseline from which to measure changes in the literacy skills of New Zealand's population over time, to identify 'at risk' and disadvantaged groups with low literacy and numeracy skills, and to assist in setting strategic directions aimed at addressing skill needs of the population.

Key Findings

The key findings from the survey for New Zealand were:

  1. The distribution of literacy skills within the New Zealand population is similar to that of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.
  2. Approximately one in five New Zealanders is operating at a highly effective level of literacy.
  3. New Zealanders do less well at document and quantitative literacy than at prose literacy.
  4. The majority of Māori, Pacific Islands people and those from other ethnic minority groups are functioning below the level of competence in literacy required to effectively meet the demands of everyday life.
  5. Labour force status and income are related to level of literacy.
  6. Increased retention into the senior secondary school appears to be associated with improving literacy levels.
  7. Māori with tertiary qualifications have literacy profiles similar to those of tertiary educated European/Pakeha.

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