Almost half of Australians have problems with literacy
If you are reading this piece you’re probably not among the close to half of the population with literacy and numeracy skills below the required levels to meet the demands of everyday life and work.
This figure comes from the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills survey undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2006 and while not up-to-the-minute, is worth reflecting on in light of last week’s National Literacy and Numeracy Week.
Specifically the survey revealed that between 46% and 70% of adults in Australia had poor or very poor skills across one or more of the five skill domains of prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy, problem-solving and health literacy.
It’s hard to believe that in a well-off country like Australia such a large proportion of the community could be struggling with everyday tasks because of an inability to read properly. We are not just talking about residents for whom English is a second language either, but an endemic societal problem which the education system is not adequately addressing.
The theme for this year’s Literacy and Numeracy Week was ‘Getting the basics right’. It speaks to the need for a solid foundation for literacy and numeracy development among young people so that they may grow up with the best possible opportunity to reach their potential.
Perhaps it’s easier to comprehend the rate of poor literacy when we see that Australian students spend just nine hours of classroom time a week on reading, writing and literature – as reported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last year. This is well below the OECD average of 15 hours.
Aside from the debilitating effects of poor literacy at the individual level, where reading public notices or interpreting a bus timetable can become a challenge, the effect on the broader economy is also significant. In fact, it has been estimated that a one per cent increase in a country’s literacy scores is associated with an eventual 2.5 per cent increase in labour productivity and a 1.5 per cent increase in GDP.
So how can we improve this situation, given that it has persisted for so long as an ‘invisible’ issue perpetuated by the social stigma of illiteracy and the broader lack of recognition around the extent to which it affects people in our community?
Last week the Australian Industry Group announced the launch of a national program to tackle the impact of poor literacy and numeracy among those in the workplace. It will be funded by the Federal Government and is a step in the right direction towards both boosting employee prospects and workplace safety.
After all, an employee charged with operating machinery who can’t properly read operating instructions, is a liability to him or herself as well as the organisation.
This is a good initiative, but tackling illiteracy in adults is not enough. To prevent illiteracy from becoming such a problem in the workplace, it must be addressed at the earliest possible opportunity so that the next generation doesn’t enter the workplace with sub-standard skills in this area.
Research shows that the building blocks of literacy are developed long before a child starts school, with parents playing a crucial role in helping their children develop a love of language and books through the shared enjoyment of reading together.
But as technology and television continue to dominate our home environments, the written word is being squeezed out. In 2006, 19 per cent of Australian children (almost one in five) reported having less than 11 books in their home. Worryingly, this percentage has doubled in the three years since 2003, and with many parents themselves struggling with low levels of reading and writing, are we surprised that the cycle of poor literacy continues from one generation to the next?
At The Smith Family we have long believed in the value of working with the family unit to support the learning of both parents and their children from a very early age. Already, 100,000 children across the country have benefited from involvement in the early literacy program we facilitate called Let’s Read.*
Not only does this program help to prepare children for primary school through development of their emergent literacy skills (the ability to identify and manipulate sounds), but it also works with parents and carers to ensure they are equipped with the skills to share in reading with their children in the home.
For older children struggling at school with poor literacy skills, the fear, shame and embarrassment this can provoke in them can be a huge burden to bear, and they are often reluctant to get help because they don’t want to feel any more different than they already do.
To try to address this problem sensitively, The Smith Family developed a mentoring program called student2student, which anonymously pairs primary students struggling with poor literacy skills with older student mentors who regularly help them with their reading over the phone.
Comfortable in their home environment, these students are also better able to focus on their learning without the added emotional pressure of a face to face situation. Not only does the program help improve reading skills but also the young students involved said the program gave them more confidence with their school work.
If we can bring this issue out into the sunlight, we can work together towards instilling a new generation with a love of words, and when they grow up and become parents themselves, they too can pass on that joy of reading to their own kids.
*Let’s Read is an initiative of the Centre for Community Child Health, one of Australia’s leading early childhood research organisations. It is research-based and is being developed and implemented across Australia in partnership with The Smith Family and with the support of its inaugural supporter Shell.
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