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Adult literacy skills in English

Definition

The proportion of the population aged 16–65 years with higher literacy skills in English (defined as skills at Level 3 or above), as measured in the 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and the 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL).

Level 3 is a “suitable minimum for coping with the demands of everyday life and work in a complex, advanced society. It denotes roughly the skill level required for successful secondary school completion and college entry”.54 Prose literacy is defined as the ability to read and understand continuous texts (such as news stories, editorials, brochures and instruction manuals). Document literacy is the ability to read and understand discontinuous texts (such as charts, maps, tables, job applications, payroll forms and timetables). Numeracy is the ability to read and process mathematical and numerical information in diverse situations.55

Relevance

The increasing complexity of our society and the need for a more flexible and highly skilled workforce mean individuals need to understand and apply information of varying difficulty from a range of sources to function effectively at work and in everyday life. The IALS and the ALL surveys were designed to measure adult literacy skills in English by assessing proficiency levels, using test materials derived from specific contexts within countries.

Current level and trends

Results from the second international literacy survey in 2006 showed 56 percent of New Zealand’s population aged 16–65 years had higher prose literacy skills (at Level 3 or above), 57 percent had higher document literacy skills and 49 percent had higher numeracy skills. These proportions represent an improvement since 1996, when 53 percent of adults had prose literacy skills at Level 3 and above and 49 percent had document literacy skills at these levels. There is no comparable trend data for numeracy skills.

Figure K5.1 Proportion of adults aged 16–65 years with literacy skills at Level 3 or above, 1996, 2006

Figure K5.1 Proportion of adults aged 16–65 years with literacy skills at Level 3 or above, 1996, 2006

Source: Satherley P, Lawes E and Sok S (2008b)
Note: Numeracy was measured in the 2006 survey only.

Sex differences

In 2006, males were more likely than females to have numeracy skills at Level 3 or above, but there was no significant sex difference in higher prose literacy. The picture was mixed for document literacy. Overall, there was no significant sex difference in the proportion of adults with document literacy skills at Level 3 or above. However, among young adults aged under 25 years, a larger proportion of females than of males had these skills. The pattern was reversed at ages 45 years and over, with males more likely than females to have higher document literacy skills.

All of the improvement in higher prose literacy between 1996 and 2006 was due to increases for males (from 49 percent to 54 percent). The substantial improvement in document literacy was shared by both sexes: the proportion of adults with skills at Level 3 or above increased from 49 percent to 56 percent for females, and from 50 percent to 58 percent for males.

Table K5.1 Proportion (%) of adults with literacy skills at Level 3 or above, by age group and sex, 2006

Age group (years) Prose literacy Document literacy Numeracy
Females Males Females Males Females Males
16–24 49 44 54 49 40 45
25–34 59 56 60 61 49 57
35–44 63 56 61 62 52 60
45–54 63 61 57 62 45 58
55–65 51 52 43 53 34 51
Total 57 54 56 58 45 54

Source: Satherley P and Lawes E (2008a) Figures 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, and customised data

Age differences

The proportion of adults with literacy and numeracy skills at Level 3 or above was larger at ages 25–54 years than at younger and older ages in 2006. Improvements in higher prose and document literacy between 1996 and 2006 were entirely due to improvements for adults aged 25–65 years. Young adults aged 16–24 years in 2006 were slightly less likely than their counterparts in 1996 to have higher document literacy, and much less likely to have higher prose literacy. However, on an age cohort basis, those aged 25–34 years in 2006 had improved in prose and document literacy relative to 16–24 year olds in 1996.

Table K5.2 Proportion (%) of adults with literacy skills at Level 3 or above, by age group, 1996, 2006

Age group (years) Prose literacy Document literacy Numeracy
1996 2006 1996 2006 2006
16–24 56 47 55 52 43
25–34 52 57 52 60 53
35–44 59 60 54 61 55
45–54 53 62 47 60 51
55–65 42 52 31 48 43
Total 53 56 49 57 49

Sources: Satherley P and Lawes E (2008a) Figures 2.2, 2.4, 2.6; Satherley P, Lawes E and Sok S (2008b)
Note: Numeracy was measured in the 2006 survey only.

Ethnic differences

Across all three domains, a clear majority of New Zealand Europeans had literacy skills at Level 3 or above. Compared to Asian adults in 2006, Māori adults had a larger proportion with prose literacy at Level 3 or above, but a smaller proportion with higher levels of document literacy and numeracy. Pacific peoples consistently had the smallest proportions with skills at Level 3 or above. In 2006, less than one quarter of Pacific adults had prose or document literacy skills at this level and only 14 percent had higher numeracy skills. Between 1996 and 2006, the proportions of New Zealand European, Māori and Asian adults with higher prose and document literacy skills increased, while the proportions of Pacific adults with these skills declined.

Table K5.3 Proportion (%) of adults with literacy skills at Level 3 or above, by ethnic group, 1996, 2006

Ethnic group Prose literacy Document literacy Numeracy
1996 2006 1996 2006 2006
New Zealand European 59 64 55 64 56
Māori 35 37 30 36 25
Pacific peoples 28 21 26 24 14
Asian 28 34 33 43 39
Total 53 56 49 57 49

Source: Satherley P and Lawes E (2008c)
Note: Robust statistics are not available for Other ethnicities because of small numbers.

International comparison

Comparable information from the IALS and ALL surveys is available for New Zealand, Australia, the English-speaking part of Canada, and the United States. In 2006, New Zealand had the same proportion of adults with prose and document literacy skills in English at Level 3 or above as Australia (56 percent), a lower proportion than English-speaking Canada (60 percent), and a higher proportion than the United States (48 percent). The proportion of adults with numeracy skills at Level 3 or above was similar for New Zealand (50 percent), Australia (51 percent) and Canada (52 percent), and lower for the United States (42 percent).56

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