THE NATIONAL ADULT Literacy Agency (Nala) has published three reports on research of adult literacy, suggestions of how to tackle adult literacy, and arguments on why current policies are inadequate.
According to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills, about 18% of Irish people aged 16 to 65 are at or below level one on the five-level literacy scale.
“This means that 521,550 adults struggle with reading a leaflet, bus timetable or medicine instructions,” the report said.
It also indicates that 25% of Irish adults (754,000 people) scored at or below level one for numeracy, which means they may have difficulty doing basic addition or calculating a bill. Out of 24 countries, Ireland ranks 17th place in literacy and 19th in numeracy.
Source: PIAAC 2012 Survey
As well as that, 55% of the adult population has low digital skills. This means they may struggle with reading text, doing simple maths or searching and understanding information online.
What can be done
The NALA has asked that the nine government departments that concern adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills should develop a “cross-departmental approach”.
NALA said that this would be “very achievable” to implement in Ireland, and cites the Netherlands as a country that has implemented something similar.
“In order for this to be realised, all departments would need to address adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills as a core capability as it relates to building resilience. This marks a slight departure from previous work and national strategies that focus primarily on labour market needs,” a statement said.
The Programme for Government includes a commitment to develop and implement a new 10-year strategy for adult literacy, numeracy, and digital skills.
The reasons for increasing literacy levels
Literacy is defined as ”listening and speaking, reading, writing, numeracy and using everyday technology to communicate and handle information”.
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Literacy difficulties can affect people’s health and wellbeing, their ability to access work and lifelong learning and to contribute and participate fully in community life.
Poverty and low literacy are “two sides of the same coin”, the report argues, saying they have similar impacts on people: powerlessness; inequality and injustice; feelings of rejection and inadequacy; a sense of hopelessness and failure; and a social stigma.
While 65,000 adults accessed adult literacy services in 2019 (12.5% of those with needs), 456,000 adults are not getting any support.
“If there’s one thing we learnt during the pandemic, it’s that many people struggle with understanding and accessing information,” Dr Inez Bailey, NALA CEO said.
“For those with low literacy or digital skills, it is especially difficult. While some families were able to support their kids learning online, many parents struggled with understanding information from schools.
“Third-level institutions moved quickly to deliver their courses virtually but often those attending adult literacy education classes didn’t have access to technology. Indeed many callers to our helpline simply wanted help using technology to stay in touch with family.”