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Adult literacy and economic growth - WP 04/24

2  Literacy skills in New Zealand

2.1  The IALS survey

IALS is the best source of information on adult literacy skills in New Zealand. IALS was conducted in 22 countries, and was designed to be representative of each country’s civilian, non-institutionalised population aged 16-65. Testing took place in either 1994, 1996 or 1998, using a standard questionnaire which was translated into each country’s main language or languages. In New Zealand the questionnaire was administered in English. A total of 4,223 respondents (giving a response rate of 74%) were interviewed in the New Zealand round, which took place in 1996.

Survey participants were first asked for background and demographic information and then to complete a core booklet of six tasks, designed to avoid the embarrassment of giving the full test to participants with very low literacy skills. Those who completed the core booklet satisfactorily were asked to complete the main booklet, consisting of a variety of tasks related to common types of written information.

Literacy in IALS was measured on three scales – prose, document and quantitative – where each scale ranged from 0 to 500 points. An individual’s score on these scales implied an ability to complete tasks at a particular level of difficulty. People who were estimated to have a score of 280, for example, would be expected to consistently perform tasks – with an 80% probability – like those in the questionnaire with a difficulty value of 280. They might at times be able to do more difficult tasks, but the probability of success would be lower than 80%. Similarly, the probability of them performing easier tasks, with a lower difficulty value, would be greater than 80%.

2.2  Literacy skills at Level 1

Scale scores were grouped into five literacy levels. The lowest level, containing those people with the poorest literacy skills, was Level 1, which on each of the three scales was defined by a score of 225 or less. The IALS report (OECD and Statistics Canada 2000, p.xi) describes people in Level 1 of each scale as having “very poor skills” and people in Level 2 as having a “weak level of skill”, and whose “low level of proficiency makes it difficult for them to face novel demands, such as learning new job skills”. Level 3 is “considered a suitable minimum for coping with the demands of everyday life and work in a complex, advanced society”. Levels 4 and 5 describe people who “demonstrate command of higher-order information processing skills”.

Because of the description of Level 3, people in levels lower than this are frequently considered to be the ‘problem group’ with poor skills below those required to function in a knowledge economy. However, the description of Level 3 also says that attainment of this level “denot[es] roughly the skill level required for successful secondary school completion and college entry”, which seems a unreasonably high standard for a whole population to meet. About 45% of New Zealanders aged 16 to 65 were estimated to be in either in Level 1 or 2 (Figure 1) and to suggest that this whole group is not coping with the demands of everyday life and work is unjustified.

In this Chapter, therefore, the focus is solely on people with a literacy score in Level 1. This is not to suggest that all those, and only those, people with Level 1 skills have problems with literacy. Literacy is a continuum, and any cut-off point for the purposes of analysis will be to a large extent arbitrary. Concentrating on Level 1 seems a better way of focusing on people with the poorest literacy skills, however, than looking at Levels 1 and 2 together.

In New Zealand, 18% of the population aged 16-65 were in Level 1 for prose literacy, 21% were in Level 1 for document literacy and 20% were in Level 1 for quantitative literacy (Figure 1). A total of 26% of the population were in Level 1 for either prose, document or quantitative literacy, and 15% were in Level 1 for all these domains of literacy.

Figure 1 – Percent of New Zealanders aged 16-65 at each prose, document and quantitative literacy level, 1996
Percent of New Zealanders aged 16-65 at each prose, document and quantitative literacy level, 1996.
Source: New Zealand IALS data.

New Zealand’s current population aged 16-65 is estimated to be 2.65 million (Statistics New Zealand 2004). If the overall proportion of the population with Level 1 literacy skills has not changed since 1996 (i.e. it is still around 20%) then about 530,000 people will have literacy skills at Level 1.

On each of the three scales, the proportion of the population in Level 1 is similar across almost all age groups, increasing only amongst people aged 55 to 65 (Figure 2). One explanation of this pattern is that people’s literacy skills decline with age. If so, the literacy skills of the workforce as a whole may decline in the future as a result of population ageing. Alternatively, this pattern might reflect a cohort effect, where older New Zealanders were less educated, or had a poorer quality education, than more recent cohorts, and therefore had lower literacy skills. If this is the case then the literacy skills of the workforce as a whole may improve in the future as young people with relatively good literacy skills trickle into the workforce at age 16 and older people trickle out.

Figure 2 – Percent of New Zealanders aged 16-65 at Level 1 on prose, document and literacy scales, by age group, 1996
Percent of New Zealanders aged 16-65 at Level 1 on prose, document and literacy scales, by age group, 1996.
Source: New Zealand IALS data.

Men and women also differed in their literacy skills, as did people in different ethnic groups (Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Prose literacy in IALS: proportion of population aged 16 to 65 in Level 1, by gender and by ethnicity
Prose literacy in IALS: proportion of population aged 16 to 65 in Level 1, by gender and by ethnicity.
Source: New Zealand IALS data and Minister of Education (2001).
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