Where to start if you’re developing your awareness of literacy and numeracy initiatives


If you are in education you are also in the business of literacy and numeracy. And you should have an awareness of key adult literacy and numeracy initiatives that relate to learners in your programme.

Initiatives can refer to projects, programmes, and schemes that are designed to increase the literacy and numeracy levels of learners. These can be at a national, regional, or local level, and may include initiatives funded by government. In New Zealand our main funding agency for adult education is the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC).

One initiative that you need at least passing knowledge of is the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey or ALLS for short. While the data is aging now and is due to be superseded shortly, it has been influential in shaping major literacy and numeracy initiatives in the past few years.

In 2006 New Zealand participated in the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS). ALLS measured the prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills of a representative sample of respondents aged 16-65 from participating countries. The definitions that the ALLS uses for literacy and numeracy are different to the ones that we use in our literacy and numeracy professional development, but the data is still useful. ALLS was built on a prior study – International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) which was undertaken in 24 countries – including New Zealand – in 1996.

The ALL Survey uses a five point scale with level 3 considered the benchmark, something like a level of functional numeracy and literacy equivalent to a good high school education. Here’s a quick breakdown of how the levels work.

  • Level 5 – Can make high-level inferences or syntheses, use specialised knowledge, filter out multiple distractors, and understand and use abstract mathematical ideas with justification.
  • Level 4 – Can integrate information from a long passage, perform more complex inferences and complete multiple-step calculations requiring some reasoning.
  • Level 3 – Can perform more complex information filtering, sometimes requiring inferences, and manipulate mathematical symbols, perhaps in several stages.
  • Level 2 – Can search a document and filter out some simple distracting information, make low-level inferences, and execute one or two-step calculations and estimations.
  • Level 1 – Can read simple documents, accomplish literal information matching with no distracting information, and perform simple one-step calculations.

Comparison data from the ALLS suggests that, on average, New Zealanders are about as literate and numerate as those from countries like Australia, Great Britain, and the United States. This is the good news. The bad news is that between 40 – 50% of New Zealanders could be described as having low literacy and numeracy levels.

For some people these findings are certainly no big surprise. For others they are shocking. Whatever your reaction, it’s important to remember that statistics are just statistics after all and we need to be careful about making broad generalisations about findings like this. However, you should also know that the data has been accepted by government departments including the TEC. And the received wisdom is that there are at least one million New Zealanders who need some kind of assistance in this area.

You are part of the solution in case you were wondering. Take some time to think about what these statistics might mean. Your opinion about these findings is important and may affect how you approach professional development in this area, as well as your future teaching and training.

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