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Improving adult literacy and numeracy everybody’s business
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Improving adult literacy and numeracy everybody’s business

Comment 8 minute read

Literacy and numeracy are everybody's business. Some people do business more than others, but ultimately it's everybody's business.

At any period of time, literacy and numeracy practices mean different things to the individuals that are using them in their lives and livelihoods. In real estate they say 'location, location, location'; in adult literacy and numeracy it’s all about 'context, context, context'.

It's therefore important to gather as rich a set of data on adult literacy and numeracy as we can. Then we can make evidence-based decisions that will strengthen our population's literacy and numeracy practices – from within the workplace, from within our community and its sporting clubs and our volunteer activities, at libraries, and with family and friends – so that it becomes everybody's business.

The Australian Government Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training is currently holding a parliamentary inquiry into adult literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills. One of the inquiry’s Terms of Reference is the availability, impact and effectiveness of adult language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) educational programs in Australia and internationally.

This depends significantly on the capability of the existing vocational education and training (VET) and LLN workforce to implement effective adult LLN educational programs, and the range and type of these programs, as we explain in our submission to the inquiry.

The LLN workforce

Success in improving LLN across the population relies on a strong and well-equipped LLN teaching and training workforce, and this has been identified as a critical challenge across Australia. Whilst there is no up-to-date data about the adult LLN workforce in Australia, it is recognised to be an ageing, predominantly female and casualised or contract-based workforce.

There are currently only two VET accredited qualifications in adult LLN available in Australia:

  • TAE80113 - Graduate Diploma of Adult Language, Literacy and Numeracy Practice; and
  • TAE80213 - Graduate Diploma of Adult Language, Literacy and Numeracy Leadership.

At present there are only five providers approved to deliver TAE80113, and only two providers to deliver TAE80213. And available data show only 25 completions of the more popular TAE80113 in 2016, just 20 completions in 2017 and a further 20 in 2018. These are extremely low numbers, which may well have dropped even further in recent years.

While there are other tertiary programs focussing on school literacy or adult English language acquisition, adult literacy and numeracy is a very different field with unique issues, learning demands and methodologies.

Establishing ongoing, funded professional learning programs that offer career pathways for adult LLN teachers and trainers is essential to refresh and expand the depth and breadth of the adult LLN workforce, and ultimately improve VET outcomes.

Of course, attention to LLN issues is not just the responsibility of a few specialist teachers. The risk in this approach is of failing to reach all learners needing assistance. To manage the risk, all staff dealing with training and assessment require knowledge about vocational LLN.

LLN programs

There are many challenges in deciding on which intervention or support programs work best for adults who have low levels of LLN skills. There is no, one-size-fits-all solution because, as the OECD has observed:

‘Low-skilled adults are a diverse group and didactical and methodological approaches have to address the specific learning needs of each adult learner, be this a low-skilled worker trapped in a low-skill job, a young school dropout, an unemployed person or a parent who has been inactive in the labour market. Often those concerned will have done badly at school and have a negative perception of education; they may lack awareness of their deficiencies, and even if aware, are embarrassed to admit it.’

To successfully improve adult LLN skills a range of long term practices and programs needs to be implemented, such as community, vocational and workplace or family literacy programs.

Vocational and workplace programs

Literacy and numeracy provision in the workplace can benefit both employees and employers. Research indicates that literacy and numeracy provision associated with vocational and workplace training is best delivered within the context of that training wherever possible.

As Skills Australia noted, ‘Connecting LLN to a student‘s core VET program enables the student to address their poor LLN skills in a meaningful and relevant context. This is considered preferable to students feeling singled out and potentially stigmatised.’

Community programs

People with literacy problems can often be reluctant to seek help. A range of community-based providers –  such as neighbourhood houses, community colleges, men’s sheds and universities of the third age – is therefore critical in helping adults gain LLN skills.

Adult and community education (ACE) literacy programs are often successful because they can build literacy skills through informal learning, and can be based around local, personal and community-based real-life activities. They can also deliver formal learning programs and provide pathways into accredited vocational programs. Such community-based programs are often the best way forward in addressing LLN issues related to First Nations people.

Family literacy programs

Family literacy programs have never been well promoted or used in Australia, but there is international evidence of their value in reversing intergenerational patterns of low literacy and numeracy.

As the OECD explains, ‘Family literacy programmes engage adults in their role as parents, enabling them to enhance their literacy and parenting skills, particularly in relation to their children’s emerging literacy. The programmes recognise adults as learners in their own right, but also as a powerful influence on those around them in their homes and communities.’


Find out more:

Read ACER’s full submission to the parliamentary inquiry on Adult literacy and its importance.

Read the transcript of the public hearing, where ACER’s Juliette Mendelovits and Louise Wignall gave evidence to the parliamentary inquiry.

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