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Literacy and numeracy for the 21st century
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Literacy and numeracy for the 21st century

Research 5 minute read

The evolution of essential skills presents a challenge for school education in preparing young people for the world as adults.

Literacy and numeracy – two of seven general capabilities included in the Australian Curriculum – and their importance for adult life will be in the spotlight at ACER’s Research Conference 2019 in Melbourne in August.

Conference speaker and former CEO of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Robert Randall, says literacy, numeracy and the other five general capabilities are a key element in the Australian Curriculum that will assist students to live and work successfully in the 21st century.

‘The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians proposed that the Australian Curriculum would provide a solid foundation on which further learning and adult life can be built,’ Mr Randall said.

Yet results from international surveys show that millions of Australian teenagers and adults do not have sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to be able to cope adequately with life and work in the 21st century.

Part of the problem, according to ACER Research Director Juliette Mendelovits and ACER Senior Research Fellow Dave Tout, is that the nature of literacy and numeracy has evolved from the 20th Century into the 21st century.

‘21st century skill requirements are more demanding, requiring more critical, reflective reasoning skills and the ability to interpret and understand a broader range of texts and materials,’ Mendelovits and Tout say. ‘Increasingly, these new skills interact with the digital world and technology.’

Using international surveys of adult skills as a reference, which serve to reflect how school education is preparing young people for the world as adults, part of Mendelovits and Tout’s conference presentation will trace the evolution of the definitions for literacy and numeracy.


‘In the mid-90s prose literacy, the comprehension of passages of connected text, was seen as separate to document literacy, the ability to deal with texts such as forms, graphs, tables, maps and diagrams – a kind of reading that makes up the bulk of many adults’ engagement with texts,’ Ms Mendelovits explains. ‘A decade later, literacy was unified into a single construct that penetrates every aspect of adult life.’

In 2012, definitions of literacy evolved to incorporate critical literacy – a capacity that goes beyond the merely functional ability to ‘understand’ and ‘use’ texts. Today, definitions of literacy have also expanded to include ‘access’, or the ability to search from and extract information from digital sources.

‘‘Access’ in its full sense requires not just a mechanical or technical competence, but draws also on advanced cognitive competence in analysing, selecting and critiquing from a plethora of possibilities,’ Ms Mendelovits says.


Mr Tout explains that what we now refer to today as numeracy was, in a 1996 international survey of adult skills, known was quantitative literacy – the ability to apply arithmetic operations to numbers embedded in printed materials.

In 2006, quantitative literacy was replaced by numeracy – the ability to effectively manage and respond to the mathematical demands of diverse situations. This covered a much wider range of mathematical skills and purposes and was not as heavily dependent on reading skills as quantitative literacy. By 2012 the definition of numeracy had evolved to encompass the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas.

‘There is growing awareness that critical numeracy, like critical literacy, is a key element of 21st century life that goes beyond a merely functional perspective on numeracy,’ Mr Tout says. ‘As a result, current revisions to the numeracy definition have some new emphases: reasoning critically with mathematical content, information and ideas represented in multiple ways.’

Further information:
Robert Randall, Juliette Mendelovits and Dave Tout will be speaking at Research Conference 2019, addressing the theme, ‘Preparing students for life in the 21st Century: Identifying, developing and assessing what matters’, from 4-5 August at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Download the conference proceedings.

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