The Problem of Low Adult Literacy and Numeracy Levels
LN levels have been on the decline for possibly 20 years or more in NZ. Why do we have this problem with low adult literacy and numeracy? In other words, how did we get here?
What are the main kaupapa contributing to this? What about the effects of COVID-19? I’ve written about this before, but let’s update and unpack this kaupapa in a bit more detail:
Tackling the Challenges of Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Aotearoa New Zealand
The persisting challenges surrounding adult literacy and numeracy (LN) in Aotearoa New Zealand are complex, rooted in a myriad of kaupapa (themes) that span across historical, socio-economic, and educational spheres.
Here’s an exploration into some of the contributing factors and the pivotal need for targeted interventions to bridge the LN gap.
- Historical Disparities: The shadows of institutional discrimination loom large, engraining intergenerational poverty and lower educational attainment within Māori and Pacific communities. This historical inequity mirrors in the disparities in literacy and numeracy outcomes for these groups.
- Evolving Workforce Demands: The transformation in the nature of work over recent decades underscores an escalating demand for digital literacy alongside traditional numeracy skills. The sluggish pace of the education system in adapting to these shifts has birthed a skills gap, leaving many workers trailing behind modern workforce requisites.
- Quality of Education: The spotlight on education quality reveals concerns; some evidence suggests that learners aren’t getting the support and resources they need to hone robust literacy and numeracy skills.
- Socio-economic Barriers: The entanglement of low literacy and numeracy with poverty, unemployment, and inferior educational levels is undeniable. These socio-economic hurdles hamper individuals’ access to enriching educational opportunities and resources.
- Language and Cultural Hurdles: The multicultural tapestry of New Zealand brings forth language and cultural barriers for many, especially immigrants, refugees, and individuals from non-English speaking backgrounds. These barriers can stymie the development of literacy and numeracy skills.
- Health and Wellbeing: Health challenges, both physical and mental, can deter individuals from engaging in educational pursuits, potentially impacting their literacy and numeracy competencies.
- Technological Advancements: The brisk pace of technological advancements necessitates not only digital literacy but also a solid grounding in numeracy to navigate the modern world.
- COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions: The COVID-19 pandemic has etched significant imprints on literacy and numeracy levels. The educational disruptions, coupled with the economic aftershocks, have exacerbated the LN challenges, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
To turn the tide, a robust government-backed initiative is indispensable. Investment in tailored educational and training programmes targeting disadvantaged communities, enhancing digital literacy, and addressing historical inequities is pivotal.
Moreover, a concerted effort to prop up individuals continually impacted by COVID-19 to access educational and training avenues is crucial for bolstering literacy and numeracy skills, thereby sewing the seeds for a more equitable and skilled society in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The data from the recent PIAAC cycle, slated for release in late 2024, will provide fresh insights into the literacy and numeracy landscape, offering a lens through which the efficacy of interventions can be assessed.
The journey towards bridging the literacy and numeracy chasm is a long-haul endeavour, necessitating a collective resolve and sustained efforts across the societal spectrum.
Are declining literacy and numeracy levels the government’s fault?
It is important to acknowledge that the government plays a significant role in shaping policies and investments that can impact literacy and numeracy outcomes in New Zealand. Therefore, it is fair to say that the government shares some responsibility for the state of adult literacy and numeracy in the country.
However, it is also important to note that low literacy and numeracy levels are complex issues that cannot be attributed to any one factor or entity alone. Addressing this issue requires a collaborative effort between government, community organisations, and the education sector.
Therefore, while the government does play a role in shaping policies and investments that can impact literacy and numeracy outcomes, it is not solely responsible for the issue. Addressing this issue requires a comprehensive, coordinated effort from all stakeholders involved.
What can vocational tutors and others do about low adult literacy and numeracy levels?
A lot of this seems outside of the control of ordinary individuals. What are some things that adult educators can do? Specifically, what can vocational tutors do about any of this?
While addressing the issue of low adult literacy and numeracy requires a concerted effort from multiple stakeholders, adult educators and vocational tutors can play a significant role in improving literacy and numeracy outcomes for their students. Here are a few things that adult educators and vocational tutors can do:
- Develop Learner-Centred Approaches: Adult educators should adopt a learner-centred approach that recognises the diverse learning needs and backgrounds of their students. This can involve tailoring instruction to meet the specific needs of individual learners, using real-world examples and scenarios, and providing opportunities for hands-on learning.
- Use Digital Technologies: Given the increasing demand for digital literacy skills in the workforce, adult educators should incorporate digital technologies into their teaching practices. This can involve using online resources, digital tools, and virtual learning environments to enhance students’ digital literacy and numeracy skills.
- Build Strong Relationships: Building strong relationships with students can help to create a positive learning environment and foster student engagement. Adult educators should take the time to get to know their students, understand their learning needs, and provide personalised support and guidance.
- Provide Supportive Feedback: Providing constructive and supportive feedback can help to build students’ confidence and motivation to learn. Adult educators should provide regular feedback that recognises students’ strengths and identifies areas for improvement.
- Address Barriers to Learning: Adult educators should be aware of the barriers to learning that their students may face, including language and cultural barriers, and provide support to overcome these challenges. This can involve providing language support, cultural awareness training, and resources to address socioeconomic barriers to learning.
By implementing these strategies, adult educators and vocational tutors can help to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes for their students and contribute to the wider effort to address the issue of low adult literacy and numeracy in New Zealand.
What are some of the broader issues that correlate with low adult literacy and numeracy levels?
There are a range of broader issues that correlate with low adult literacy and numeracy levels, for example, we may find poor housing and low literacy together. Here are some other examples of broader issues that are often correlated with low adult literacy and numeracy:
- Health Inequities: Poor health outcomes and inequities in healthcare are often linked to low levels of literacy and numeracy. For example, individuals with low levels of literacy may have difficulty understanding healthcare information, which can lead to poorer health outcomes.
- Unemployment and Low Wages: There is often a link between low levels of literacy and numeracy and unemployment or underemployment. Individuals with low levels of literacy and numeracy may struggle to find work, and those who do often earn lower wages than their peers.
- Social Isolation: Low levels of literacy and numeracy can also contribute to social isolation and exclusion. Individuals with low levels of literacy and numeracy may have difficulty communicating with others, accessing information, and participating in social activities.
- Criminal Justice System Involvement: There is often a link between low levels of literacy and numeracy and involvement in the criminal justice system. Individuals with low levels of literacy and numeracy may struggle to navigate legal processes and understand their rights, which can contribute to their involvement in the criminal justice system.
- Financial Insecurity: Individuals with low levels of literacy and numeracy may struggle to manage their finances effectively, which can contribute to financial insecurity and debt.
Addressing low adult literacy and numeracy outcomes requires a holistic approach that takes into account these broader issues, and recognises the complex interplay between them.
If we can address these broader issues, it is possible we can create more equitable and inclusive communities that support the development of strong literacy and numeracy skills.
Is there a gender gap in low adult literacy and numeracy levels?
Here are another couple of questions that no one is asking. Who gets it worse when it comes to low adult literacy and numeracy levels? Women or men? And if there is a gender gap in literacy and numeracy levels then why?
There is evidence to suggest that women tend to have lower levels of literacy and numeracy than men, although the size of the gender gap varies depending on the country and the specific measures used to assess literacy and numeracy.
For example, data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) – a large-scale survey of adult literacy and numeracy skills conducted by the OECD – suggests that women generally score lower than men on tests of numeracy, while the gender gap in literacy is less pronounced.
The reasons for the gender gap in literacy and numeracy are complex and multifaceted, and can vary depending on cultural and societal factors. Some possible explanations for the gap include:
- Cultural biases: There may be cultural biases that discourage girls and women from pursuing education or that limit their access to educational opportunities.
- Gender roles: Traditional gender roles may limit women’s opportunities to develop literacy and numeracy skills, particularly in contexts where women are expected to focus on domestic duties and child-rearing.
- Economic factors: Women may face greater economic barriers to education and may be more likely to work in low-paying jobs that offer limited opportunities for skills development.
- Discrimination: Women may face discrimination in educational and employment settings that limit their opportunities for skills development.
Also, it is important to note that the gender gap in literacy and numeracy is not universal and may vary depending on the context. Efforts to address low levels of adult literacy and numeracy should take into account the specific needs and experiences of both women and men in the target population.