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Adult literacy and economic growth - WP 04/24

2.4  New Zealanders with Level 1 skills

This section provides a picture of New Zealanders who have literacy skills at Level 1: their characteristics, employment status, and the uses they make of printed information at home and at work. Since the people with skills at Level 1 on each of the three literacy scales are very similar, we concentrate here on people with skills at Level 1 of the prose literacy scale.

Level 1 is defined as a score of 225 or less, and people with skills at Level 1 had scores ranging from 56 to 225.[12] People with skills at this Level will therefore differ considerably in their ability to perform particular tasks. Men and women are represented more or less equally in Level 1, as are people from different age groups. Level of education is, on the other hand, a defining feature of people in Level 1. The highest level of education for over three-quarters of the people in Level 1 was the fifth form. Some of the older people in Level 1 had not attended secondary school at all.

A total of 19% of people in Level 1 spoke a language other than English most often at home. Many of these people may have a reasonable standard of literacy in their home language, but struggle in understanding written English. Another 21% of the people in Level 1 said they had had a learning disability.[13] A significant proportion of people in Level 1 might therefore have quite specialised learning needs, different to those of other people with low literacy skills.[14]

People with literacy skills at Level 1 did read at home and many rated their own reading skills highly. Although it is hard to know how accurately people reported their own behaviours, a total of 57% said they read the newspaper every day (only 5% never read the newspaper), and 48% said they read books at least weekly (23% never read books). In addition, most people with skills at Level 1 rated their literacy skills as either excellent or good (Table 2). People who did not speak English as their main language at home or who reported having a learning disability were much more likely to rate their literacy as moderate or poor, especially their reading skills.

How would you rate your ___ skills in English needed in daily life?

Table 2 – Self-rated literacy skills of people at Level 1 on the prose literacy scale
  Reading Writing Maths
Excellent 26% 14% 12%
Good 44% 44% 45%
Moderate 21% 28% 31%
Poor 9% 14% 12%

Source: New Zealand IALS data.

Of people with literacy skills in Level 1, and who were aged 22 or over, 44% were employed and 15% were unemployed. A further 40% of people in Level 1 were not in the labour force (Figure 4). Of people who were not currently working (either unemployed or not in the labour force), a quarter had worked at some time in the previous year. Employment information in this section is restricted to people aged 22 or over, as many younger people would still have been in full-time or part-time education

Figure 4 – Labour force status of people aged 22-65, at Level 1 on the prose literacy scale
Labour force status of people aged 22-65, at Level 1 on the prose literacy scale.
Source: New Zealand IALS data.

People in Level 1 who were employed or who were retired had a significantly higher mean score on the prose scale than people who were unemployed, students, homemakers or otherwise out of the labour force.

Figure 5 shows that there is a considerable rise in the probability of employment between people with literacy skills at Level 1 and those with literacy skills at Level 2: a rise which is greater than that between Levels 2 and 3 or between Level 3 and Level 4/5. Correspondingly, there is a marked decrease between Levels 1 and 2 in the probability of being unemployed or out of the labour force. There is also an association in New Zealand between literacy level and income: full-time workers with good literacy skills were much more likely to have high incomes than full-time workers with Level 1 skills.

Figure 5 – Labour force status of people in Levels 1 to 5 on the prose literacy scale
Labour force status of people in Levels 1 to 5 on the prose literacy scale.
Source: New Zealand IALS data.

Workers with Level 1 literacy skills can be found in almost all occupational groupings (Table 3). They are much more likely than people with higher literacy skills to be agriculture and fishery workers (e.g. farmers, gardeners, foresters and fishermen), plant and machine operators (e.g. welders, sewing machinists, meat processing workers and taxi drivers) and, especially, to work in elementary occupations (e.g. cleaners, couriers, labourers and rubbish collectors).

Table 3 – Employed people at Level 1, and Levels 2-5, on the prose literacy scale by occupational grouping
  Level 1(%) Levels 2-5(%)
Armed Forces 0.0 0.1
Legislators, Senior Officials and Managers 6.8 13.1
Professionals 3.0 13.0
Technicians and Associate Professionals 5.7 12.4
Clerks 6.7 15.4
Service Workers and Shop and Market Sales Workers 11.6 14.3
Agricultural and Fishery Workers 14.6 7.9
Craft and Related Trades Workers 10.2 9.1
Plant and Machine Operators and Assemblers 24.9 11.2
Elementary Occupations 16.6 3.5

Source: New Zealand IALS data.

Turning to industry rather than occupational groupings, workers with Level 1 literacy skills were twice as likely as people with higher literacy skills to be part of the manufacturing industry. They were also more likely to work in the agricultural, mining and transport sectors.

A good proportion of Level 1 workers report that they perform literacy-related tasks daily (Table 4). A quarter of Level 1 workers, for example, said that they read letters or memos every day. A third said they use mathematics to measure or estimate the size or weight of objects, although this may relate only to tasks such as weighing objects. Many people in Level 1, however, perform no, or very few, literacy-related tasks as part of their jobs. It might be expected that the Level 1 workers who perform literacy tasks at work most often would have the highest literacy scores but, interestingly, this was not the case. There was in fact no consistent pattern relating frequency of tasks to scale scores and most the differences were not statistically significant.

Table 4 – Literacy aspects of people’s jobs, for people in Level 1 of the prose literacy scale
  Every day(%) A few times a week(%) Once a week(%) Less than once a week(%) Rarely or never(%)
Read or use as part of main job:  
Letters or memos 24 12 6 10 48
Reports, articles, magazines, journals 12 13 9 10 56
Manuals, reference books, catalogues 12 13 11 11 53
Diagrams or schematics 26 5 10 7 52
Bills, invoices, spreadsheets, budgets 13 6 8 6 68
Directions for medicines, recipes etc 15 9 9 9 59
Write or fill out as part of main job:  
Letters or memos 15 7 5 8 65
Forms, bills, invoices, budgets 16 4 6 9 65
Reports or articles 8 3 7 8 74
Estimates or technical specifications 6 4 5 6 78
Use mathematics as part of main job to:  
Measure or estimate the size or weight of objects 35 9 3 7 46
Calculate prices, costs or budgets 12 8 5 9 66

Source: New Zealand IALS data.

Workers in IALS were asked to rate their reading skills, writing skills and mathematical skills as they applied to their jobs. Almost exactly the same pattern of answers was given to the ‘work’ self-rating as was given to the ‘life’ self-rating in Table 2 above. Most people with skills at Level 1 rated their literacy skills for their job as either excellent or good. In part, this may be because many people had no need to use more than very basic reading, writing or mathematical skills in their work, as Table 4 indicates. Again, people who did not speak English as their main language at home or who reported having a learning disability were much more likely to rate their literacy skills at work as moderate or poor, especially their reading skills.

Respondents were also asked to what extent their reading skills, writing skills and mathematical skills limited their job opportunities, for example in advancement or in getting another job. Almost two-thirds of workers thought that their reading, writing or maths skills were not at all limiting their job opportunities, while only around 7% thought their skills, or lack of them, were greatly limiting their job opportunities.

Notes

  • [12]The mean score in Level 1 is 181, the median 191 and the interquartile range from 160 to 212.
  • [13]Compared to other estimates of the prevalence of learning disabilities in New Zealand (Health Funding Authority and Ministry of Health 1998) the reports of learning disability in IALS seem slightly high. On the other hand, the IALS background questionnaire did not ask whether respondents had an intellectual disability. Since people with an intellectual disability would almost certainly have literacy skills at Level 1, about 4% of people with Level 1 literacy skills will have an intellectual disability (based on prevalence data from the Health Funding Authority and Ministry of Health 1998).
  • [14]The teaching of English as a second language is conducted quite differently from the teaching of adult literacy. Dsyslexia is by far the most common learning disability. It is thought to be caused by a neurological impairment which specifically interferes with the acquisition of literacy skills but does not directly impede learning in other areas. The orthodox view is that people with dyslexia need to be taught in different ways than ‘ordinary’ poor readers, although this has been challenged, e.g. by Fowler and Scarborough (1993). Chapman, Tunmer and Allen (2003) discuss learning disabilities in the context of the New Zealand IALS results.
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