Adult literacy and numeracy: Research and future strategy

By Kate Perkins Research report 15 July 2009 ISBN 978 1 921413 23 0


Research on adult literacy and numeracy helps educators and policy-makers respond to the needs of adult learners. From 2002 to 2006, the Australian Government funded the Adult Literacy Research Program (ALRP), which was managed by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. This report considers how the ALRP has contributed to the adult language, literacy and numeracy sector. It also draws attention to areas that were not addressed during the life of the program and highlights how literacy and numeracy issues fit in the current political focus of social inclusion and skills reform.


About the research

From 2002 to 2006 the Australian Government funded the Adult Literacy Research Program (ALRP), which was managed by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER).The NCVER commissioned two projects to reflect on the research undertaken through the program.

The first, the Adult Literacy Resource, brings together the key messages in a ‘wiki’ for practitioners ( The wiki is designed to get adult language, literacy and numeracy practitioners thinking about how they can apply the key messages from the research in their work.

As a companion piece to the Adult Literacy Resource, this report by Kate Perkins highlights how the research contributed to the adult language, literacy and numeracy sector through its primary focus on the needs of practitioners and individuals. The report draws attention to the gaps in the body of knowledge of literacy and numeracy issues. The place of literacy and numeracy within the current policy focus on social inclusion and skills reform is also highlighted.

Key messages

  • A clearly articulated policy framework is needed to provide a vision for adult literacy and numeracy skills development for the future.
  • Although there are a number of successful adult literacy and numeracy skills development programs in place, as well as a wealth of information to draw on, a lack of strategic planning has led to a fragmented approach and inconsistencies in the development and delivery of programs.
  • Strategies are needed to raise awareness among key decision-makers to ensure that adult literacy and numeracy is seen as a mainstream concern and not merely an issue for a minority of people. This may entail the adoption of simpler concepts and terminology, and a move from talking about literacy and numeracy to discussing core or foundation skills.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

Literacy and numeracy are inextricably interwoven through all parts of our lives. They are directly or indirectly linked to the physical, social and economic wellbeing of individuals, to workplace safety and productivity, to community interaction and capacity, and ultimately to a country’s economic and social wellbeing. The 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALLS) survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) identified that a significant proportion of the adult population in Australia was unable to demonstrate the minimum levels of literacy and/or numeracy required ‘to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy’ (ABS 2007, p.8). This constitutes a challenge for Australian federal, state and territory governments that are focusing their attention on two interrelated areas seen to be of critical importance to Australia’s future, namely, the requirement for extensive upskilling of the workforce and the need to address social exclusion. In both areas, literacy and numeracy skills play a key role.

Research into adult literacy and numeracy provides evidence to inform decision-making about areas of specific need, critical issues and possible forms of action that could be taken. Much of the research undertaken in Australia over the past five years has been commissioned by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) through the Adult Literacy Research Program (ALRP). This paper reviews the findings of these studies, in conjunction with other Australian and international research, to identify key strategic issues relevant to adult literacy and numeracy development in Australia, and areas where further knowledge could inform decision-making and practice.

Key findings

While some Australians are able to live fulfilling lives without well-developed literacy and numeracy skills, research shows a correlation between low levels of literacy and numeracy and social isolation, unemployment, lack of qualifications, low wages and poor health. Studies also show that effective interventions can have positive outcomes for individuals, communities and organisations and, consequently, for a country’s social and economic wellbeing.

Unlike countries that have responded to such research with large-scale programs to address the issues, Australia has had no unifying vision, strategic framework or major investment in adult literacy and numeracy for many years. Existing programs have reflected a perception that adult literacy and numeracy is an issue for a minority of people on the margins of society, not a mainstream issue. There are some indications that this perception is starting to change, as the impact of low literacy and numeracy skills on skills acquisition becomes increasingly apparent. However, discourse amongst those in the literacy and numeracy field about what constitutes literacy and numeracy has in the past acted as a barrier to the engagement of policy-makers, industry and community members. We may need to develop new ways of thinking and talking about ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ if we are to bridge the divide.

Although studies show that current approaches to adult literacy and numeracy provision have positive outcomes for many participants who are unemployed, existing programs only reach a small percentage of those in these areas who could benefit from assistance and they are not designed to cater for the four million members of the Australian workforce who have low literacy and numeracy skills (ABS 2007).

The review of research, including the work of the Adult Literacy Research Program, highlights critical issues which need to be taken into account in designing future action to achieve social inclusion, increased workplace skills and improved productivity. These include:

  • the diminishing availability of people with specialist skills in language, literacy and numeracy, as ageing practitioners reach retirement age; the lack of newcomers to a profession that is highly casualised, lowly paid and lacking in professional development; the lack of formal courses for those who do wish to work in the field; and the likely need for a broader skills set for future adult literacy workers
  • the evidence showing that adult literacy and numeracy should be taught by skilled specialists, and that effective training is likely to involve regular contact and be of more than 100 hours’ duration
  • features such as funding mechanisms that work against secure employment, continuity and the potential for innovation in regard to the language, literacy and numeracy workforce
  • the emerging evidence that integrated approaches may produce better outcomes than standalone literacy and numeracy training, in terms of vocational and literacy and numeracy skills development, retention rates and learner satisfaction
  • international research on integration approaches that raises questions about the efficacy of one trainer being responsible for both the vocational and literacy-related aspects
  • the preference of many learners from diverse backgrounds for some form of integrated training, as opposed to dedicated literacy and numeracy classes.

Looking to the future

Australia can learn from other countries which have already defined adult literacy skills as an issue requiring concerted attention. There is a need for a unifying vision in Australia, but does it have to be for literacy and numeracy per se? It may be more efficacious to focus on lifelong literacy and numeracy within a broader vision of Australia’s future. This approach could also be reflected in the design of structures and systems across a broad base of stakeholders, so that literacy and numeracy development becomes a recognised, and essential, aspect of lifelong learning.

In looking to the future, the review of research points to the need for:

  • a revitalised policy framework which supports adult literacy and numeracy development as part of broader social and economic strategies and incorporates a strategic research program and a systematic approach to ensuring that we learn from, and build on, what we do
  • a closer evaluation of the content and approach of stand-alone literacy and numeracy programs to ensure that they maintain their current strengths and meet participants’ needs and expectations
  • an increased understanding of integrated approaches to adult literacy and numeracy learning in vocational institutions, workplace and community settings
  • the development of wide-ranging strategies to facilitate literacy skills development in the workplace, drawing on lessons from the Workplace Language and Literacy (WELL) Program, but not necessarily operating within it.

In the short term, with most members of the current language, literacy and numeracy practitioner workforce approaching retirement, there is a pressing need to find innovative ways of sourcing and training a ‘new breed’ of literacy and numeracy trainers with the specialised skills to deal with the complexity of contemporary literacy and numeracy teaching. Although it would be unreasonable to expect individual practitioners to develop the range of skills and knowledge required to operate in any setting, the workforce as a whole will need members with the skill sets to operate in literacy and numeracy ‘classrooms’ within workplaces and in a variety of other integrated settings. If the focus on integrated training increases, this will also challenge current notions about training program efficiency, with funding arrangements necessarily allowing for the employment of teams of trainers.

A clearly articulated policy framework aligned with the shared vision will provide the scaffolding for action and also for the identification of critical questions that need to be further explored through a strategically focused and coordinated research program.

Reflection on the Adult Literacy Research Program research and other work indicates that strategies best placed to leverage change could include:

  • a collaborative effort to ensure a high profile for literacy and numeracy for all age groups in the emerging vision of Australia in 2020 and in key policies and strategies designed to achieve it
  • the development of a new national policy framework to focus and support adult literacy and numeracy strategies as an integral part of broader social and economic strategies, and reflected in government organisational structures
  • the development and implementation of a national literacy and numeracy workforce development strategy
  • the implementation of strategies to raise the awareness of key decision-makers that adult literacy and numeracy is a mainstream issue that should be part of their agenda. This may involve the adoption of somewhat simpler concepts and terminology and perhaps a move from talking about literacy and numeracy to a discussion of core skills or foundation skills
  • a review of the content and approach of dedicated literacy and numeracy programs to ensure that they continue to meet participants’ needs and expectations
  • support for the use of the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF) 1 across programs to provide nationally consistent data on learner outcomes, and further exploration of the potential to describe and report on other learning outcomes that may not be captured by the framework
  • national coordinating structures to ensure that we learn from, and continue to improve on, what we do.

1 The author was part of the project team which developed the Australian Core Skills Framework.



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