Literacy is Everyone’s Business

Today, nearly 17% of the world’s adult population cannot read and write, two third of them are women.

Literacy is defined as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. It involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society”. (Source:

On an international level, there are three adult literacy surveys, the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL), the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Data from these surveys reveal that the lack of literacy and numeracy skills “pose problems for individuals trying to cope with work and life in modern societies” (Source:

In 1996, 19.2% of the Australian population had very poor skills, and were expected to experience considerable difficulties in using many of the printed materials that may be encountered in daily life.  36% were able to cope with a varied range of material found in daily life and at work.

Ten years later, in 2006, the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS)’s results indicated that 47% of the Australian population had difficulties with reading skills, 53% did not have numeracy skills to interpret a timetable nor follow a cooking recipe, and 17% were classified in the lowest literacy category.

In 2012, the PIAAC’s survey revealed that 14.1% of the Australian population had difficulty filling in a basic form or locating a single piece of information in a relatively short piece of text.


Small changes have occurred in the population at Level 1 or below since 1996, but the numbers have increased for the population at Levels 2 and 3.

Out of 122 million young people who cannot read and write in the world, almost 61% of them are young women.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.

You can see the result below:


Photograph: Department of Education and Training

But there were some surprising results, with Australian-born students faring worse than their first-generation counterparts who had at least one parent born overseas.

(Source:  (

Lessons learnt?

In 2016, Finland was ranked as the most literate nation.  According to the Literacy in Finland Country Report, Finland provides a literacy environment at home, in schools and in the community.

As a nation, they:

  • Ensure literacy and digital literacy are part of the school’s curriculum
  • Support struggling literacy learners,
  • Create programs for learners with a disability and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • Prevent early school leaving and address the gender gap among adolescents.

Top school performers are selected to become teachers, and all school teachers are required to have a post-graduate degree with at least 2 specialisations.

Please watch this video for a summary and some solutions.

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