Literacy: a matter of social justice


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Content type
Family Matters article

November 1990


This article focuses on the extent of literacy in Australia and the International Literacy Year (ILY) campaign. The results of recent surveys of literacy are summarised including the results of a Queensland survey which shows a link between parent's literacy and children's reading ability. The three elements of the ILY campaign: community awareness; literacy and the labour force; and the concept of a reader-friendly Australia are discussed. The author asserts that social justice must remain the focus of any efforts to improve literacy levels.

Activities generated by International Literacy year have increased public awareness about literacy and brought business and unions into the debate. There is still much to be done, and social justice issues need to be kept to the fore. AIFS Fellow, Robyn Hartley, reports.

This is International Literacy Year (ILY). It is easy to question the value of such 'Years', and in particular their long-term impact on social attitudes, government policies and individual behaviour. However, looking back, most have at least been successful in raising public awareness of a particular issue and this is likely to be the case with ILY.

Although it is too early to assess the overall effect of International Literacy Year, many national and local activities have been generated, a number of useful reports have been published and there is hope that some positive responses to the Year may be relatively permanent.

Literacy in Australia

Literacy is a relative concept, and the International Literacy Year Secretariat has argued that in a complex society such as Australia we should be aiming for active literacy, rather than functional literacy, which, put simply, is the ability to accomplish simple reading and writing tasks. Active literacy is more than just reading and writing. It involves integration of listening, speaking, reading, writing and critical thinking as well as numeracy skills. 'It includes cultural and social knowledge which enables us to participate fully in society.'

Literacy is a matter of social justice. The four basic goals of a just society, as outlined in recent Government publications are: equity --- that is, the fair distribution of economic resources and power; equality of civil, legal and industrial rights; fair and equal access to services, such as housing, health and education; and opportunities to participate in personal development, social and community life and decision making.

The report prepared by the Australian Institute of Family Studies for International Literacy Year, titled The Social Costs of Inadequate Literacy (Hartley 1989), outlined how difficult it is for individuals to exercise their rights if they have literacy problems.

It may be thought that, because we have a system of compulsory education, literacy problems are not an issue in Australia, or that the problem is really one of numbers of people from non-English-speaking backgrounds needing to learn English. This is not the case. There are many reasons why some adults did not, and some children still do not, develop adequate literacy skills while at school. They include disrupted schooling, hearing and sight problems, emotional disturbance during childhood, illness and poor teaching.

'No single measure'

International Literacy Year sees the release of a report of the first national survey of adult literacy in Australia, carried out by a team headed by Rosie Wickert (1989) from the Institute of Technical and Adult Teacher Education in Sydney, and funded by the Department of Employment, Education and Training under its National Policy on Languages Initiative. A sample of 1500 adults aged 18 years and over was interviewed for the survey. They came from cities, towns and rural communities across all States and the ACT. The title of the report, No Single Measure, reflects the author's belief that there is no one measure or specific point which separates 'literate' from 'illiterate'.

The strength of the survey lies in its approach to the measurement of literacy, an approach developed by the Educational Testing Service of the United States which recognises that literacy is a relative ability that has many dimensions. This reflects the general shift away from thinking about literacy as a fixed point on a scale or a fixed inventory of skills that can be defined and measured in a simple test. The three main dimensions of literacy identified are:

  • document literacy, the ability to identify and use information on documents such as forms and memos;
  • quantitative literacy, the ability to apply mathematical operations to information contained in print material, such as menus; and
  • prose literacy, the ability to read and interpret prose in newspaper articles and books.

Examples of tasks at different levels of difficulty in each of these dimensions are finding the expiry date on a learner's license and identifying dosage instructions from a packet of analgesics (document literacy); totalling two entries on a bank deposit slip and working out how much extra a meal would cost on a public holiday when a 10 per cent surcharge operates (quantitative literacy); and locating information in a piece of text and identifying the issues in a newspaper article (prose literacy).

Some of the findings to emerge from the survey are outlined here.

  • A majority of Australian adults can perform straightforward literacy tasks but many appear unable to complete tasks of moderate complexity, particularly those involving prose literacy and quantitative literacy.
  • Ten per cent of the sample failed to achieve at all on quantitative literacy.
  • About 70 per cent of those surveyed could not identify the issues in a newspaper article about technology.
  • One per cent of the sample had such low levels of literacy that they were not asked to continue with the assessment. More than half of these were from non-English- speaking backgrounds, more than half were male, were over 60; all came from unskilled backgrounds.
  • Although adults from non-English-speaking countries performed less well than those born in an English-speaking country on all three dimensions of literacy, the differences were less than expected.
  • The quantity of reading materials in the childhood home is a good predictor of literacy performance as an adult.

In her conclusion, Wickert states that we should be careful not to assume that a disproportionate number of adults with literacy problems are from non-English speaking backgrounds. Low levels of schooling, low levels of skills, low levels of health and other indicators of poverty are also indicators of low levels of literacy among all adult Australians. Exclusion from the survey of those born in non-English-speaking countries would have had little impact on the average scores.

Parents and children

The results of another study released during the year confirm a link between parent's literacy and children's reading ability. This Queensland study, which surveyed 1929 children in 72 North Brisbane schools, found that up to 25 per cent of students having major difficulties with reading and writing come from homes where one or both parents also have low reading skills (ILY Update 3).

When we think of the complex processes involved in reading and writing, it makes sense that a child's early and regular experiences with books and reading are important. Children who are familiar with books and being read to go to school having already learnt a lot about the structure of written language. They are also able to relate reading to the pleasurable experience of listening to imaginative stories.

Parents who have literacy problems are restricted in their ability to provide such experiences for their children and in some cases may have negative attitudes towards reading and writing because of their own sense of failure. The Institute report, The Social Costs of Inadequate Literacy, discussed how some parents with limited literacy skills felt frustrated and hurt when they were unable to help their children with reading tasks. The clear implication is that literacy is not a matter for schools alone but must be tackled at a variety of levels.

The ILY Campaign

Three elements of the International Literacy Year campaign are community awareness, literacy and the labour force, and the concept of a 'reader- friendly' Australia.

Community awareness

One of the aims of the ILY campaign has been to raise general awareness about literacy in Australia, in order to ensure wider understanding of the social and personal costs of inadequate literacy, to make it a public issue to which governments must respond, and to encourage government departments, businesses, social agencies and individuals to review the (often unnecessary and unrealistic) literacy demands which they place on people. The Institute's The Social Costs of Inadequate Literacy argued that people's disadvantage may be compounded by the failure of others to recognise their literacy problem. They become, in fact, doubly disadvantaged.

Among the many large and smaller-scale initiatives aimed at increasing public awareness are: ABC radio and television programs about literacy; the formation of locally based committees (Literacy Action Coalitions) to promote understanding of literacy; workshops for health, welfare and other social agencies focused on practical ways in which services can be made more accessible to those with literacy problems; and conferences organised by a variety of groups such as librarians and English teachers.

Literacy and employment

It is estimated that one in seven workers cannot read or write well enough to cope with the basic safety and performance requirements of their jobs (ILY Update 4). A major task of ILY is to encourage unions and employers to recognise the importance of literacy in the workplace and to put literacy, numeracy and basic education provision on the industrial agenda. In many areas of employment, changes in work practices and in technology are placing increasing demands on the literacy skills of workers. Considerable emphasis is being placed on the need for training in relation to award restructuring and demands for increased productivity.

Many people with low levels of literacy are effectively shut out of training programs because of the levels of literacy assumed or demanded. The Institute report detailed some of the costs both to employees and employers of literacy difficulties. They include the extreme disadvantage, lack of confidence and self-esteem experienced by the young job seeker who can't read job advertisements, lost opportunities for those who don't seek promotion, costs to the community of unemployment and other social service benefits, losses in production in major enterprises through inefficiency, possible exploitation of individual workers and at least some of the costs of workplace accidents.

International Literacy Year is undoubtedly helping to bring these issues to greater prominence and to promote the holding of events such as the recent 'Literacy and Industry' conferences in Sydney and Melbourne which brought together industry training bodies, employer groups, unions, TAFE and relevant community organisations. However, this is just a beginning, and it will be important to ensure that literacy and basic education do not get lost in the emphasis on training in areas which tend to have a much higher profile.

There are also major questions about how literacy and basic education is provided for workers. Who pays, who accredits and who controls? One option, that of workplace basic education, is only in its infancy. The integration of literacy and basic education with on-the-job training has advantages for learning. However, to be effective, it requires careful negotiation between employers, workers and unions, a thorough understanding of educational issues in literacy and basic education, and a particular sensitivity to the needs, fears and anxieties of potential students.

It is important to remember that there are many people with literacy difficulties who are not attached to the labour market. Housebound women particularly are sometimes quite isolated by their lack of literacy skills and their inability to handle tasks which most of us take for granted. Overall, more females than males tend to stay to the end of compulsory schooling these days. But this is only a very recent phenomenon --- there are many women in the community who did not finish secondary schooling, who have had no further training, who live in poverty, and whose main or only connection with the outside world is through their partners or their children. A recent report from the Brotherhood of St Laurence (Taylor 1990) shows some of the ways in which low income women lack a 'voice'.

The development of neighbourhood houses has provided many women with a greater voice and opportunities to learn basic skills. One proposal developed during International Literacy Year aims to extend such opportunities to women who lack the confidence to approach a neighbourhood house by employing several 'outreach' workers.

'Reader-friendly' documents

A third emphasis of the ILY campaign has been the promotion of a Reader- Friendly Australia. Most of us have had the experience of being bewildered or frustrated by an official document which seems designed to confuse. A reader-friendly document is not only written in plain English but is also designed and set out in a way which is easy to follow and understand. It may be the case that the most 'reader-friendly' thing to do with some documents is to dispense with them entirely. Are they really necessary? If the information is really needed, is there a more straightforward or simpler way of obtaining it?

The Commonwealth government has been working on plain English documents since the early 1980s and some departments have made major changes. Simplification of taxation returns is probably the most well-known of these but other departments are also involved. The Department of Social Security, a significant proportion of whose clients have some literacy difficulties, is also testing a variety of symbols for use as signs in its offices and indicators on correspondence.

While legal and 'official' documents tend to be the worst offenders, reader-friendly approaches need to be considered by many organisations.

Resources for Adult Literacy

To mark International Literacy Day, the Federal Government announced the allocation of $40 million to extend over three years. The money will fund adult literacy programs provided by TAFE colleges and community-based groups, it will provide literacy assistance for unemployed people, and it will fund a literacy and learning program for disadvantaged high schools.

The initiatives are welcome. But they need to be seen in the context of a recent review of Commonwealth and State adult literacy expenditure (Coopers and Lybrand Consultants, 1990). The review concluded that: resources for adult literacy were very unevenly spread across States, different geographical areas and groups which needed assistance; that expenditure was grossly inadequate in relation to need and nowhere sufficient to meet current demands; and that there was a need for much greater coordination of effort through the development of a national strategy.

The International Literacy Year campaign appears to be leading to a wider acknowledgement that literacy is both a matter of social justice and necessary for economic development and greater productivity. A continued focus on the broad principles of social justice, even though difficult to achieve, is needed if greater equity is to result. If demands for economic development and increased productivity drive literacy provision, those who are not in the primary labour market are likely to miss out. It should also be remembered that for individuals, literacy is not necessarily the way out of poverty or the key to satisfaction, if the only work available is poorly paid and tenuous.

It is hoped that after 1990 is over, governments will not forget the statements they have made acknowledging the crucial place of literacy in the community, that the beginnings of cooperation between business, unions, community groups and educational institutions regarding literacy will not disappear, and that funding for literacy and basic education will not be as inadequate as it has been in the past.


  • Coopers and Lybrand Consultants (1990), A Strategic Review of Commonwealth/State Adult Literacy Expenditure, Report prepared in association with Ashenden and Associates for the Department of Employment, Education and Training, Canberra.
  • Hartley, Robyn (1989), The Social Costs of Inadequate Literacy, Prepared by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Department of Employment, Education and Training, AGPS, Canberra.
  • ILY Update (1990), Nos. 3 and 4, International Year Secretariat.
  • Taylor, Janet (1990), Giving Women Voice, Brotherhood of St Laurence, Melbourne.
  • Wickert, Rosie (1989), No Single Measure: A Survey of Australian Adult Literacy, Institute of Technical and Adult Teacher Education, Sydney.