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How reading impacts life chances in Australia

Published on
May 5, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PDT May 5, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PDTth, May 5, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PDT

Literacy and skills in the workplace


According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), between 40% and 50% of adults in Australia don’t have the literacy skills required to be able to fully participate in education, work, and wider society.


We don’t have exact federal data on the number of people with low literacy skills, but the above study from the OECD put the number at around 3 million people across the six states. There’s a higher concentration of low literacy in Tasmania attributed to an ageing population and a higher number of 15-19-year-olds who aren’t in university or TAFE settings.


Although we don’t see too many pronounced national dips in literacy skills over the 2012-2020 period, there are fears that the pandemic contributed to a potential spike in people who don’t have the basic literacy skills they need to succeed – it’s something that needs to be addressed.


How literacy and skills impact life chances


The Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group are showing an increased level of concern about a deficit of literacy and skills for work in the talent pool. Last year, an Ai Group report estimated that around 74% of businesses were affected in one way or another by low levels of literacy and numeracy in their general workforce.


This might be due to day-to-day errors, employers needing to train employees in foundational digital skills, or more to do with business futures such as employees lacking the literacy skills for progression. It’s important to remember that literacy skills often impact digital skill proficiency, so in an age where technology is the cornerstone of most business practice, jobseekers need the skills to use the technology available.


Where businesses are losing money and talent investments aren’t growing as they should, pressure emerges, especially in times of economic downturn. That’s why the literacy expectation and qualification requirements for entry-level roles have been rising steadily over the past decade: when making a hire, businesses want certainties that that investment is going to pay off in terms of productivity.


It means that people with low literacy often struggle to find work. Even in sectors like retail or labouring, few jobs don’t require confident literacy and skills based in reading. There are logistical elements, such as finding it a struggle to access job applications or successfully complete an application task or personality test. It could be more nuanced: perhaps you’re a skilled worker in work, but you find yourself stuck in low-paid manual or entry-level roles due to a reading barrier.

It's not difficult to see how the relationship between low literacy and skills, the job market and low income deepens and creates a cycle that it’s hard for people to move out of even when they have access to further education and training. Hundreds of thousands of learners every year drop out of TAFE and university courses due to literacy struggles and an inability to make the step up into a more self-led pattern of study, and those paths of access need to be cleared if we’re to foster a better, brighter working future for everyone.


It starts in the classroom


2021’s NAPLAN results indicated that 20% of 9 boys are functionally illiterate, whilst 40% of Australian 15-year-olds can’t reach the minimum set standard in the OECD-run Program for International Student Assessment.


The pandemic accounts for some of the literacy and skills shortfall as learners spent so long out of class and many still struggle to master foundational reading skills due to missed time, but experts are swift to say that it doesn’t account for all of it. Scores have been concerning for a while. There’s a long-term slide in reading that educators are keen to address, and 10% of students are not meeting NAPLAN standards in literacy. 


School leaders and education commentators both tend to cite resourcing issues as the primary reason why these levels are falling. As a microcosm, the Northern Territory provides us with an interesting model: it’s received a notable reduction in the amount of investment in public education since the Gonski reforms in 2008 and it’s also the area in which the most students fall into the ‘needs additional support’ NAPLAN category. The same reading-resourcing deficit correlation might be evidenced on a personal level too: data shows that those from high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage find it even harder to keep up with their peers’ scores. 


It's a complex equation and it’s unlikely that we can account it to any one source, but it remains that low literacy in school equates to another cohort with low literacy and skills leaving school, struggling to find work or to keep up with their peers in TAFEs and other further study and training settings. 


Literacy and skills: reading’s impact on social and personal lives


It’s not just about work and test scores. According to the National Reading Survey in 2021, 25% of people in Australia haven’t read or listened to a single book in a year or more. This percentage is likely to be higher in the groups who have the lowest literacy levels, such as older people, people on low incomes and those in Indigenous communities. 


Mental health is an important consideration in this debate as reading doesn’t only impart knowledge for exams and training for work. It also teaches important skills like empathy, creativity, and emotional intelligence, and especially for children, a deficit in these skills can equal under-engagement with their peers and the world at large. When we foster a generation of learners who not only lack the functional elements of literacy and skills but also the soft skills too, we’re likely creating an unhappy generation who struggle with the interpersonal and communicative aspects of work, as well as in their personal lives and hobbies.


Literacy impacts everything, not just working futures


Literacy and skills can impact life chances in a much less work-focused way too. Adult literacy is one of the strongest indicators of life expectancy, and data from multiple sources indicates that those with a good standard of literacy can expect to retire earlier, amass greater amounts of lifelong savings, and enjoy a better standard of health both as a working-age adult and as an older retired person.


How do we change the low literacy narrative? 


For a better, more accessible working and training future for everyone, we need reading support that responds to reader’s needs. That means no support systems that stop at the classroom door: the data above clearly sows that there are so many learners with low literacy in Australia who might need reading support at home, attend school less than their peers, have already left full-time education or who might be struggling to make the step up into further study and training after they’ve enrolled in TAFE or university education. 


Try C-Pen Reader 2 for boosting literacy and skills in work, training and education!


We know that you’d be hard pressed to find a school leaver with reading needs who feels comfortable sitting next to a learning support assistant all semester. But we also know that when learners head to college, it’s one of the most intensive moments in their educational career for reading, and it’s here that they’ll be fostering the support skills that they need in order to boost literacy and take on the world of work with confidence. 


That’s why we’re so proud of the C-Pen Reader 2.


The C-Pen Reader 2 is our bestselling text-to-speech reading device in TAFE and university markets for a reason. It puts reading support straight in the user’s own hands, with no need for human support, expensive software when budgets are at a low, or even significant training. It’s as simple as scan and listen: just move the tip of the pen across the page to get started, and experience anything from textbooks and manuals to novels and class tests with ease.

• Supports readers with dyslexia or other literacy needs

• Supports those learning in English as an Additional Language 

• Use with headphones for discreet reading support in the classroom and lecture hall

• There’s no need for Wi-Fi: work anywhere, anytime!

• Holds an 8+ hour charge for all-day reading and learning 

• Boosts vocabulary and tackle difficult texts with inbuilt dictionary support 

• Scans in multiple languages 

• Customisable word pause setting and reading speed


To find out more about the reading support that works for learners in TAFE and university settings, or to request a free trial, head over to C-Pen Reader 2 at Scanning Pens. You can also learn more about supporting learners where you are in our TAFE Resources Hub!