What is literacy?

Traditionally literacy means the ability to read and write. These days this meaning has been expanded to include using and understanding images, computers and technology to communicate and understand information. More specifically, literacy is the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to take part in society, reach goals, and develop knowledge and potential. It includes a range of skills from understanding written words and sentences to understanding and evaluating complex texts.

Current levels of literacy in Australia

In October 2013, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) — in conjunction with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — published the results of the latest international study on literacy in the developed world.

The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) was conducted between November 2011 and March 2012. It measured the literacy, numeracy and computer skills of people in 24 different countries.

Overall, Australia did well in the study, coming in fourth out of all surveyed countries for literacy. We didn’t perform so well for numeracy though — we came 13th out of all surveyed countries, which was just below the OECD average for numeracy skills. As a nation, we scored well in relation to computer skills, with about 38 per cent of our adult population achieving higher levels of proficiency in problem solving in technology-rich environments.

Despite these fairly positive results we still need to remember, particularly when preparing content for a wide audience, that 14.1 per cent of our population have very low levels of literacy, and over 40% have literacy levels below what is considered enough to get by in everyday life.

You can read more about the literacy stats here.

What can we learn from this study?

The results of this study can help us understand the relationship between literacy levels, people in the workforce and other factors such as age and languages spoken.

Here is a brief snapshot of the overall results:

  • People who worked in areas such as ‘Professional, Scientific and Technical Services’ had very high levels of literacy, with 78 per cent of those surveyed who worked in these areas achieving a Level 3 or above for literacy. Other highly skilled areas included ‘Education and Training’, ‘Public Administration and Safety’ and ‘Information Media and Telecommunications’.
  • People with a higher level of education, such as a Bachelor degree and above, were more likely to reach a Level 3 or above for literacy and numeracy.
  • In general, older people have lower levels of literacy. The scores tended to go up in the younger age brackets, even out in the 20s and 30s, and then decline from the late 40s on.
  • People who speak English as an additional language were more likely to be at the lower skill levels, with 25 per cent at literacy levels of Level 1 or below, compared to 12 per cent of people whose first language was English.
  • In most countries that took part, a substantial minority have very low levels of literacy and numeracy. In Australia 14.1 per cent of people have the lowest levels in literacy and 20 per cent in numeracy.

Find out more about the literacy results, and a breakdown of the levels, here.