Literacy and numeracy in New Zealand: findings from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey

Publication Details

Profile & Trends 2007 contains a number of short articles covering a wide range of topics of interest to the sector’s stakeholders and those who are involved in the provision of tertiary education.

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

Date Published: November 2008

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Short Article

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) is an international survey of adults' skills in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving.  It provides information on the relationships between adults' skills and their socio-economic and demographic characteristics. Cross-country and within country comparisons of the survey findings can throw light on questions about the causes and consequences of people's different skill profiles and the associations between their skills and social and economic advantage.

New Zealand participated in the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey in 2006 and a similar survey, the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), in 1996. The first findings from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey were released in December 2007 and further reports have provided an initial view of New Zealanders' skills. This article summarises these initial findings. Further work will progressively investigate the data in more depth.

Initial key findings include:

  • From 1996 to 2006, the proportion of the adult population with very low literacy skills reduced substantially.
  • Similar changes have occurred in Canada, the United States and Australia.
  • New Zealand adults' performance in literacy and numeracy is similar, on average, to Australia, better than the United States but not quite as good as Canada.
  • Greater literacy and numeracy skills are strongly associated with higher levels of education, and with being employed or a student rather than with being unemployed.

What is ALL?

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey is an international study involving some 12 countries. It builds on the International Adult Literacy Survey which was undertaken in 24 countries in 1996, including New Zealand. The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey used a nationally representative sample of adults aged between 16 and 65 years and involved over 7,000 interviews.

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey measured skills in four domains:

  • prose literacy – understanding text such as editorials, news stories, brochures
  • document literacy – understanding information in tables, forms, diagrams
  • numeracy – processing mathematical and numeric information in differing situations, and
  • problem-solving – analytical reasoning in situations where no routine procedure exists.

Prose and document literacy were measured in the same way in 1996 and 2006. This allows comparisons over time in these domains, as well as between countries.

In addition, the survey collected data on a range of socio-economic, health and demographic variables, including the use of information and communication technology and participation in adult education and training. This provided new information on the relationships between skill levels and the labour market, economic growth, and education systems and services. The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey results also provide comparative information for New Zealand and other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This helps understanding of how different countries' economic and education situations may influence people's skill profiles and their economic and social advantage.

International comparisons over 10 years

From 1996 to 2006 the proportion of the adult population of New Zealand with the lowest literacy (Level 1) skills shrank substantially. However, the proportion with Level 2 literacy skills has persisted. Similar changes have occurred in Canada, the United States and Australia. In New Zealand, the improvement in document literacy has been more pronounced than in Canada, the United States and Australia. New Zealand adults' average performance in literacy and numeracy is similar to Australia, better than the United States but not quite as good as Norway. Figure 5.20 shows international comparisons over 10 years for document literacy skills.

Figure 5.20:  International document literacy – distribution of levels in selected countries
 Figure 5.20: International document literacy – distribution of levels in selected countries
Note:
  1. The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) was held over the period from May 1996 through to June 1996. The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) was held over the period from May 2006 through to March 2007.

The adult population of New Zealand has large subpopulations with low numeracy and low problem-solving skills. The adult populations of Canada, the United States and Australia also have large sub-populations with low numeracy skills. In addition, Canada and Australia have large subpopulations with low problem-solving skills.

In New Zealand, established immigrants have higher literacy and numeracy skills, overall, than recent immigrants. Established immigrants also make up a larger proportion of the adult population than recent immigrants. By contrast, in Canada and the United States, recent immigrants have higher literacy and numeracy skills, overall, than established immigrants. In these countries, established immigrants also make up a larger proportion of the adult population than recent immigrants. Immigrants (both recent and established) in New Zealand have higher levels of prose and numeracy skills than those in Canada and the United States.

Education

Greater literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills are strongly associated with higher levels of study. This is illustrated for numeracy in Figure 5.21.

Figure 5.21:  Numeracy – distribution of levels by study levelFigure 5.21: Numeracy – distribution of levels by study level

Work and income

Students and people in employment have, on average, the greatest skills in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving. Homemakers and people who are retired have lower levels of these skills while the unemployed have the lowest skills. Figure 5.22 shows levels of numeracy skill by labour force status.

Figure 5.22:  Numeracy – distribution of levels by labour force statusFigure 5.22: Numeracy – distribution of levels by labour force status

People whose incomes fall into the top 40 percent of New Zealand's income distribution tend to have higher numeracy and document literacy skills.

The occupation group 'professionals' had the highest numeracy skills overall and those employed in the 'elementary' occupations the lowest.

Agriculture and fisheries industry employees had the lowest numeracy skills overall, and employees in the finance and real estate and health and education industries the highest.

Gender

For both women and men, average prose literacy skills remained relatively stable between 1996 and 2006. Women had relative strength in prose literacy and men had relative strength in numeracy.

For both women and men, on average, higher income is associated with greater prose literacy skills and numeracy skills. The mean income for men was at least two deciles higher than for women with the same prose literacy and numeracy skills. For men and women employed full-time, the mean income for men was at least one decile higher than for women with the same prose literacy and numeracy skills.

Ethnicity

The overall prose literacy skills of the New Zealand European, Māori and Asian ethnic groups rose. However, those of the Pasifika ethnic group decreased. The overall document literacy skills of the New Zealand European, Māori and Asian ethnic groups rose, while those of the Pasifika ethnic group remained relatively stable, as shown in Figure 5.23.

Figure 5.23: Document literacy – distribution of levels by ethnic groupFigure 5.23: Document literacy – distribution of levels by ethnic group

The New Zealand European, Asian and Other ethnic groups were over-represented in the higher performers in numeracy skills, and the Māori and Pasifika ethnic groups were over-represented in the low performers.

Language most frequently spoken in the home

Those who most frequently spoke a language other than English in the home had substantially lower overall prose literacy in English and numeracy skills (measured in English) than those who most frequently spoke English. This difference was less marked for numeracy than for prose literacy. However, there was an increase between 1996 and 2006 in the overall prose literacy skills for both groups.

Age

The results for each skill domain showed a strong age effect 25 to 54 year-olds had, on average, stronger skills compared with 16 to 24 year-olds and 55 to 65 year-olds. This is consistent with a pattern of skills accumulating through people's middle decades of life and work.

In prose and document literacy, the performance of 16 to 24 year-olds in 2006 was roughly comparable to the performance of 16 to 24 year-olds in 1996. However, the document literacy performance of older age groups in 2006 was higher than the equivalent age groups in 1996, particularly for 55 to 65 year-olds.

As would be expected, the cohort aged 25 to 34 years in 2006 improved their performance in prose and document literacy compared with their performance when they were aged 16 to 24 years in 1996.

Footnotes

  1. Canada, the United States, Bermuda, the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, Hungary and the Netherlands
  2. The New Zealand and Australian data collections took place for IALS in 1996 and for ALL in 2006. Canada's and the United States took place in 1994 and 2003.
  3. Problem-solving was not measured in the United States.
  4. The people aged 55 to 65 years in 1996 were born between 1931 and 1941. That generation had lower participation in education, on average, than those born between 1941 and 1951, who represented the 55 to 65 years age band when the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey was conducted in 2006.

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