PIAAC Versus ALLS And Other Incomprehensible Acronymns Used By Literacy And Numeracy People


If you are up-skilling in the area of adult literacy and numeracy professional development you should have a basic awareness of the key adult LN initiatives that relate to your work as a whole and to learners in your programme.

Initiatives can refer to projects, programmes, and schemes that are designed to increase the LN levels of learners. These can be at a national, regional, or local level, and may include initiatives funded by TEC or others.

One major national initiative is the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS). New Zealand participated in 2006 and researchers are collecting data now for the update to this survey which is called the PIAAC. More on that shortly.

But back to the ALLS. This survey 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 training, but the data is still useful.

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills(ALL) Survey: Headline Results and Background is a short, four-page report that summarises key data from the survey if you’re looking for some bedtime reading.

The ALL Survey used 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.

  • 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.

The comparison data 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.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • 44% of New Zealanders are below level three for prose literacy (e.g. reading news stories, brochures, and instruction manuals).
  • 43% of New Zealanders are below level 3 for document literacy (e.g. reading tables, charts, maps, job applications, payroll forms, timetables).
  • 51% of New Zealanders are below level 3 for numeracy.
  • 67% of New Zealanders are below level 3 for problem solving (including reasoning and thinking analytically.

The update to the ALLS is the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) which is designed to assess adult literacy and numeracy skills, and ability to solve problems in technology-rich environments.

The technology focus is a new but probably useful dimension. However, it will probably mean that it will be hard to draw comparisons between the old and new data when we can get it.

There’s more on the PIAAC here if you want further information. For now though, I’ve just pasted in below their own bullet point summary so you get the idea:

What is the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)?


  • is the most comprehensive international survey of adult skills ever undertaken
  • is a collaboration between governments, an international consortium of organisations and the OECD
  • takes place across OECD and partner countries in two rounds.  Round 1 results from 25 countries were published on 8 October 2013 and round 2 results, including New Zealand’s, will be published in May 2016
  • measures the skills and competencies needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper
  • helps governments better understand how education and training systems can nurture these skills.

The survey is carried out by:

  • interviewing adults aged 16-65 years in their homes – at least 5,000 in each participating country
  • assessing literacy and numeracy skills, and ability to solve problems in technology-rich environments
  • collecting a broad range of information from the adults taking the survey, including education background, how their skills are used at work and in other contexts such as the home and the community.

The information from individual respondents is strictly confidential. Published results are for groups of people where individuals cannot be identified.

PIAAC builds on previous international surveys of adult skills, allowing literacy levels to be compared over a 13-18 year period for some countries. PIAAC breaks new ground by:

  • expanding the range of skills being measured
  • introducing a self-reported measure of the use of skills at work
  • using computers to administer this kind of international assessment.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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