The gap between the literacy levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australian’s is unacceptably wide. And while there have been improvements in the literacy achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, levels of adult literacy are still very low in many communities.

Closing the Gap

Closing the Gap has been a federal government priority for the last 10 years. It aims to reduce the disadvantages faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, focusing on health, education and employment. But in their 2017 progress report, the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee for Indigenous Health Equality clearly state that Australia is failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The report focuses on the connection between social factors and things such as poverty, disability, child removal, incarceration and community violence and health. And then the follow on affect of poor health on a person’s ability to learn and work.

Literacy and numeracy not on track to close the gap

While a small number of Closing the Gap targets are on track, the target to halve the gap in literacy and numeracy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students by 2018 is not.

On average, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 15 year-olds are about two and a third years behind non-Indigenous 15 year-olds in literacy and numeracy and the boys are also falling behind the girls.

The gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and non-Indigenous students in reading, writing and numeracy is also much wider in very remote areas than it is in metropolitan areas.

You can read more about Closing the Gap 2017 in our article and the full Closing the Gap Campaign 2017 Progress and Priorities Report on the Australian Human Rights Commission website.

Adult literacy

The Literacy for Life Foundation was set up to tackle the issue of low literacy levels in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults. The foundation has found that:

  • between 40 per cent and 65 per cent of Aboriginal adults are functionally illiterate in English
  • children of adults with low literacy are less likely to do well at school
  • there is a link between poor literacy and low education levels in communities and alcohol and substance abuse, poor health and high mortality.

The foundation’s Aboriginal adult literacy campaign involves local community members who are trained as teachers and focuses on the community becoming self-sufficient to create long term change.

Executive Director of the foundation, Professor Jack Beetson, appeared on SBS’s Insight program on low literacy in Australia and said that: “The government is talking about a gap. Aboriginal people are talking about a crater that superman can’t jump over… You will close nothing unless you actually address the issue of literacy.”

The Insight episode, ‘The hidden costs of low literacy in Australia’, covers many key issues and the impacts of low literacy. You can read more about it and watch the full episode through the SBS website.

A documentary about a group of Aboriginal students from Brewarrina in NSW going through the Literacy for Life’s course was also screened on SBS in July 2017. You can watch it on SBS OnDemand until July 2018

More information

There are a number of organisations and campaigns that support the important work of improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literacy, including: