A parliamentary inquiry is looking into how to improve adult literacy in Australia.
Having a low level of literacy is not the same thing as being illiterate. The definition of “illiterate” is the inability to read or write. A low level of literacy is more complex and relates to people’s abilities to read, write and understand a range of information that allows them to fully participation in society.
According to the OECD, 40–50% of adults in Australia have literacy levels below the international standard required for participation in work, education and society.
Together with literacy, the inquiry will also look at numeracy and problem-solving.
While it’s important the inquiry look at ways to improve literacy for those struggling with it, the government could start acting now to make its information and services more accessible. One way is to present information in plain English, and make services like Centrelink easier to navigate.
Why are we having this inquiry?
The inquiry will consider both economic and social aspects of literacy. But its focus is on increased labour market participation, and increased productivity.
It was initiated after a 2020 Productivity Commission report showed Australia’s falling rates of educational achievement, compared to other countries in the OECD, were related to our levels of productivity — particularly as compared to the United States.
In a survey of adult skills conducted by the OECD in Australia from October 2011 to March 2012, Australian adults scored fifth out of participating countries for literacy — after Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden. The United Kingdom and the US scored at 15th and 17th respectively.
But for numeracy Australia ranked 14th, the UK 17th and the USA 21st.
Adults with low literacy come from different cultural or language backgrounds. Those born in Australia could have low literacy due to various circumstances including:
- learning difficulties
- alternative preferences for learning
- social circumstances that prevent school attendance or lead to many school changes
- health issues during childhood
- childhood trauma (including family/domestic violence)
- a lack of interest or motivation to learn.
What are we doing to improve the issue?
A number of programs are available to train adults in certain skills to increase labour market participation. One example is the government’s Job Trainer Fund that provides free or low-cost courses as part of its economic response to COVID.
There are government programs too that focus on literacy and numeracy skills. They include
- Skills for Education and Employment where eligible job seekers can improve their language, reading, writing and maths skills
- Foundation Skills for Your Future which helps Australians who need flexible skills in Reading writing, maths, English language and digital skills
- Remote Community Pilots which is a pilot of the above program for remote communities.
While these program are good to have, there is stigma attached to low literacy and this can inhibit help-seeking at all ages.
Schools are increasingly recognised as the best place to improve the educational outcomes for adults. Early childhood education is especially important as the earlier in life issues are identified, the better the outcomes.
Still, people with learning difficulties are often experts at hiding their challenges and some people will slip through the school system without their issues being addressed.
Services can be more accessible
The inquiry has received around 100 submissions from a range of organisations and individuals.
A submission from Read Write Now (where I am a tutor) — a West Australian organisation that provides free one on one support for adults in areas such as filling out forms, or reading aloud to their children — notes new arrivals are more likely to seek literacy help than those born in Australia. This is not always a case of demand, but one of stigma around illiteracy.
Their submission also notes there is little consistency of such services across Australia.
Many of our clients, especially people from Indigenous backgrounds, live a transient lifestyle. We find that often when they move there is no literacy program to link them into at their new location, so they fall out of the system.
A few submissions highlighted the difficulty many adults have filling out forms and navigating government services such as Centrelink. A submission from the NSW Council of Social Service noted the “increased digitisation of government services is a compounding factor”. It points to the need for government agencies to adhere to requirements for plain English and easy access material.
In this, the government can start making changes now.
Our recent analysis of government information on COVID-19 found many documents were written in a way that is inaccessible to struggling readers.
The problem lies in not only helping to improve adults’ literacy but in making services more accessible, as well as reducing unnecessary hurdles. For instance, in one submission, a woman talks of her husband who is a recent migrant with dyslexia. Although he can speak English well, he struggles with complex writing tasks that prevent him from being able to get the kind of jobs he has the skills to do.
he could fulfil a handyman role offered recently by our local council — but only if the job were offered to him. He would not be able to provide a written CV and selection criteria responses during an online application process without significant assistance from me.
Organisations need to be aware of such issues, to not prevent skilled people from doing a job due to the application process alone. We also need to encourage those who need support to access the available services.
The House Employment, Education and Training Committee is continuing to hold public hearings for the inquiry into adult literacy.