Survey of Adult Skills: Pacific adults' literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills

Publication Details

This is part of a series of in-depth reports from the Survey of Adult Skills. This report covers how the literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills (measured in English) of Pacific adults relate to their education and work. It also looks at how these skills compare to those of non-Pacific people and how they have changed over time.

Author(s): Paul Satherley, Senior Research Analyst, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: October 2018


The Survey of Adult Skills measured the skills of New Zealand adults in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. It is part of the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The findings in this report relate to Pacific people aged 16 to 65 in 2014.

Key findings

Pacific languages

The first language learned at home for about half of New Zealand’s Pacific 16 to 65 year olds was a Pacific language. For over a third the first language was English and for about one in ten Pacific people it was both a Pacific language and English. Cook Islands Māori were much more likely to have learned only English as their first language compared to Samoans and Tongans. The main home language of about one-third of Pacific 16 to 65 year olds is a Pacific language.


In 2014, half of the 16 to 65 year old Pacific population was born in New Zealand. Eight in ten Pacific 55 to 65 year olds were born overseas, compared with three in ten 16-24 year olds.

Literacy and numeracy skills over time

Since 1996, the average English-based literacy score for Pacific people has increased from 227 to 242 scale score points. However, because of relatively small Pacific sample sizes, this increase is not statistically significant. The non-Pacific population’s average literacy skills have also increased since 1996, with barely any narrowing of the Pacific/non-Pacific gap. From 1996 to 2014, the proportion of Pacific people with low literacy skills has decreased. Since 2006, the average numeracy score for Pacific people has shown a slight increase from 218 to 224 scale score points.

Problem solving skills

Problem solving in technology-rich environments was a new skill domain in the 2014 Survey. It measured people’s skill in using computer applications to acquire and evaluate information, and communicate with others. Twenty-two percent of Pacific and 46% of non-Pacific had at least moderate problem solving skills.

Pacific people were much less likely to be able and willing to use a computer to do the assessment. One in five Pacific 16 to 65 year olds either had no computer experience, did not pass a simple computer use assessment, or declined to use a computer. This compares with one in ten non-Pacific 16 to 65 year olds.

Skills and migration

Pacific people born in New Zealand have much stronger skills on average, as measured in English, compared with those born overseas. This applies to all three skill domains (literacy, numeracy and problem solving). Average skills are similar for Pacific people born in New Zealand or who first arrived aged up to 12 years. Average skills are lower for those who first arrived aged 13 years or more.

Skills and qualifications

On average, higher qualifications are associated with stronger skills for both Pacific and non-Pacific people – with the proviso that post-school qualifications below degree level are associated with a similar literacy skill to upper secondary qualifications. Pacific people have lower average literacy scores at every qualification level.

Pacific people show less upward intergenerational education mobility than non-Pacific people. Pacific people whose parents’ education is less than upper secondary are more likely than non-Pacific to have gained only this level of schooling themselves. In addition, Pacific people whose parents’ education is upper secondary or higher are less likely to have gained a degree level qualification than non-Pacific people. Possible reasons for this are:

  • Pacific people are more likely than non-Pacific people to report unmet aspirations for learning activities over the previous 12 months. Child care or family responsibilities is more common for Pacific people as the factor limiting their participation in learning activities.
  • Pacific people are significantly less likely to report that they use the learning strategy: relating new ideas to real life situations.
  • Tertiary education statistics show that Pacific people have lower completion rates for formal qualifications.
Skills and employment

For both Pacific and non-Pacific people, being employed is associated with stronger literacy skills compared to being unemployed. Pacific professionals and managers have strong English-based literacy skills – not significantly different from non-Pacific managers and professionals. However, Pacific people are much less likely to be managers or professionals, and more likely to be community and personal services workers, machinery operators or labourers. Pacific people in these occupations have much lower literacy skills than non-Pacific people. Managers are the occupation group with the smallest Pacific/non-Pacific numeracy skills gap.

Employed Pacific and non-Pacific people have similar earnings at the same literacy and numeracy skill levels.

Social participation and wellbeing

Pacific and non-Pacific people are just as likely to participate in voluntary work, but, on average, those Pacific people that do participate do so more often. Pacific and non-Pacific people have the same levels of belief that they can influence government. However, Pacific people have lower levels of trust in other people. Pacific people are less likely to rate their health as excellent or very good, and more likely to rate their health as good, fair or poor compared to non-Pacific people. For non-Pacific people, stronger literacy skills were associated with higher self-reported health status. However, the literacy skills of Pacific people seem to be similar across health status ratings.

Home environment factors and literacy

Pacific people are less likely to use a computer in everyday life than non-Pacific people. However, the association between using a computer in everyday life and literacy skill is stronger for Pacific people.

Pacific people with more books at home have higher literacy skills than those that do not. Pacific people, on average, have far fewer books than non-Pacific people. Literacy skills and having more than 100 books at home have a similar strength of association for Pacific and non-Pacific peoples.

The proportion of Pacific people that reported reading books at least weekly in everyday life was lower than non-Pacific people. However, for Pacific people the association with literacy skill is not significantly different from zero. This suggests that Pacific people with low literacy skill are just as likely to read frequently as those with strong literacy skills.

Supporting Pacific people to study at any level of formal education, and also attain bachelors or higher qualifications may help increase literacy skill in English

Pacific people with a bachelors or higher qualification have higher English-based literacy scores than those who do not, including those with non-degree post-school education. Of Pacific people, 21% have a bachelors or higher qualification, compared to 45% of non-Pacific people. Degree level qualifications and literacy skill are similarly associated for Pacific and non-Pacific peoples. This suggests that the proportion of Pacific people with bachelors or higher qualifications has scope to increase, together with a potential increase in literacy skill.

Pacific people who have been studying at any level of formal education in the past 12 months have much higher literacy skills than those who have not been studying.

Workplaces utilise Pacific people’s literacy skill

Pacific people who reported writing letters, memos or emails for work at least weekly have higher skills than Pacific people who do not – an average literacy score of 266 compared with 230. Though they are less likely to do this than non-Pacific people, the strength of association between the activity and literacy skill is similar.

Contact Us

For more information about the content on this webpage, please email the:  Tertiary Mailbox