Literacy and numeracy for non-experts (Or how do you recognise low levels of literacy and numeracy?)


This is not meant to be research-informed or any kind of definitive list. It’s also culled from other lists of indicators and conversations with people that I’ve absorbed over the years.

Indicators for low adult literacy and numeracy

You don’t have to be a literacy or numeracy “expert” to recognise some of the indicators for low literacy and numeracy in your clients or workforce.

If you work with people who have low levels of literacy and numeracy they may be highly intelligent and will often have coping or avoidance strategies to avoid drawing attention to themselves or their lack of skills.

So… if you start identifying issues around literacy and numeracy make sure that you are sensitive to the needs of those you are working with. You need to build strong relationships before you earn the right to talk about how to strengthen any skill gaps without causing embarrassment or loss of dignity.

That said, here are some things that you can look for. You might not see all of these, and beware that even if you do observe these behaviours, there can also be other explanations.

Reading and writing: Your worker, client, or learner…

  • Is reluctant to do any paperwork, is late filling in standard forms, or always takes paperwork home (e.g. I’ll take that home and bring it back tomorrow).
  • Gets others to write notes and fill in forms for them or makes excuses why they can’t write (e.g. I’ve got dirty hands. I’ve left my glasses at home.)
  • Asks where they have to sign a form, without reading it. (e.g. Just tell me where to sign.)
  • Won’t apply for anything that requires a form to be filled in: E.g. “Nah, that’s not my cup of tea.”
  • Records data wrong or in a way that doesn’t make sense. E.g. I hate filling in time sheets.)
  • Leaves out key information when writing or filling in forms.
  • Gets words or letters in the wrong order or produces writing that doesn’t flow or has a clear lack of internal logic.
  • Records other details incorrectly when taking telephone messages, orders, or writing down quantities or codes.
  • Makes a lot of errors or leaves things out when writing in forms and documentation
  • Avoids graphs, charts, standard operating procedures, or other printed materials
  • Can’t follow production schedules, processes or systems correctly.
  • Is disruptive or quiet in situations where there is reading and writing to be done.

Listening and speaking: Your worker, client, or learner…

  • Doesn’t participate much in meetings or through available channels of communication.
  • Rarely or never volunteers in group situations.
  • Is confident on the job but very quiet in team or other meetings. • Is reluctant to be involved in training (e.g. I’m too old to go to school.)
  • Says they understand and nods in agreement but then fails to do what is expected of them.
  • Looks blank or puzzled when you explain things but does not ask for help.
  • Constantly checks instructions with their workmates, particularly those who speak their own language.
  • Can’t follow spoken instructions.
  • Is hard to understand.
  • Watches people carefully for hand or body gestures, to get clues about what is being said.
  • Has difficulty answering questions or needs prompting to speak.
  • Often asks people to repeat what they’ve said or to talk more slowly.
  • Never volunteers answers.

Numeracy: Your worker, client, or learner…

  • Shows poor planning skills.
  • Can’t estimate quantities and weights.
  • Gets confused when counting or recording numbers (I can’t think with that racket going on. I’ll do it later.)
  • Asks others to do the task (Can you measure this up? I’ve just got to go…)
  • Has poor timekeeping (Is it that time already? I was too busy to notice.)
  • Is unable to understand production graphs (Don’t worry about that, just tell me what I have to do.

Other: Your worker, client, or learner…

  • Always needs to translate into their own language.
  • Struggles with any technical terms or specialised language.
  • Is isolated because of language, cultural differences, or other differences in the workplace.

What to do…?

That’s the big question really… Chances are if you’re reading this blog you need to be part of the solution. And the solution might include working with local community organisations, accessing funding, finding an expert, or creating your own embedded or contextualised training resources.

Have I missed anything above? Any good ideas…? Let me know.

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