The hidden costs of low literacy in Australia

The emotional, practical and financial toll of low literacy can be severe, particularly in a world that assumes almost everyone can read and write. 

But around 44 per cent of Australian adults lack the literacy skills required for everyday life, making daily tasks difficult. 

Why do so many Australians have poor literacy skills, and what can be done to ameliorate the largely negative experiences of those who struggle with low literacy?  

How widespread is low literacy?

Being literate means more than just being able to write, read or count numbers.

Literacy generally refers to the ability to connect the things you hear and speak about with written and read text, and to think critically about them. While some people may have basic spelling abilities, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can comprehend what the word means and how it would be used.

Numeracy likewise goes beyond being able to recognise a number; it’s about being able to practically apply maths and problem solving  to everyday life. I can also mean understanding quantities and measurements, such as metres/centimetres, kilos/grams, litres/millilitres, prices and  even time.

According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the OECD, many adult Australians struggle with the literacy and numeracy skills required in daily life.

In 2013, the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) surveyed a sample of Australians from 15 – 74 years-old and rated them on a level of 1-5 for their literacy skills, with Level 3 meaning the person was considered proficient.

The survey found that 43.7 per cent of Australians had below-proficiency level literacy; around 7.3 million people.

Our numeracy scores were worse, with around 53.5 per cent of the population below-proficiency levels. The greatest group (5.4 million people) were ranked at Level 2 levels of numeracy.

1 in 3 Australians have literacy skills low enough to make them vulnerable to unemployment and social exclusion.


Overall, this means that 1 in 3 Australians have literacy skills low enough to make them vulnerable to unemployment and social exclusion.

This can entrench cycles of disadvantage, and not only exclude these people from the workplace generally, but from emerging economy jobs that require a high level of literacy; particularly digital literacy.

Jobs that once were less reliant on a literate workforce now need workers to be able to fill out occupational health and safety forms, use computers and have knowledge of industry terminology.

In September 2010, it was estimated up to 2.7 million people over 15 years-old were unemployed, or underemployed, because they lacked the required literacy skills.

International research has shown that this lack of involvement has a bigger financial flow-on effect to national economies, with a rise in literacy skills of just 1 per cent associated with a 1.5 per cent increase in GDP, and an eventual 2.5 per cent increase in labour productivity.

For Indigenous Australians, the issue of low literacy is much more prevalent.

Jack Beetson, a guest on this week’s Insight, heads the Literacy for Life Foundation and estimates that, “in the Aboriginal community, low literacy levels are at a minimum of 40 per cent and in some communities up to 80 per cent.

“So if you look at the anecdotal evidence it's around about 65 per cent of Aboriginal people nationally have low literacy,” he tells Insight’s Jenny Brockie.

The 2009 Closing the Gap report estimated that literacy and numeracy improvements in the Indigenous community would have greater employment returns than for non-Indigenous Australians. 

“The government is talking about a gap," says Beetson. "Aboriginal people are talking about a crater that superman can’t jump over … You will close nothing unless you actually address the issue of literacy.”

How hard can it make everyday life?

For Jack Coenan, a Sydney resident in his 60s, literacy has been a struggle his whole life.

He began to fall behind his peers in school and was never able to catch-up again.  

In spite of his low literacy skills, he’s managed to work all his life,  developing tricks while employed as a delivery driver: matching up letters on the map with his delivery instructions and counting sets of traffic lights before a turn off, and working from memory of particular routes.

“People asked me, ‘what road [are you] taking?’  I couldn't tell them the names of the roads, I just knew how to get there,” he shares with the Insight studio.

“[I made mistakes] like reading the street and not marrying it up with the right suburb, driving twenty miles in the wrong direction.”

He still manages with these tricks, but filling out forms poses the biggest problem in daily life.

“Filling out paperwork, going to an office to fill out an application form, anything to do with Centrelink, a government office, the Post Office, making out a simple address, can't be done,” he says.  “I have to either copy it down or get someone else to do it for me.”

Cynthia Brooke also suffers from low literacy and agrees forms are particularly difficult, adding that many forms – for example, a licence application or car registration form – are now done online, and it can be difficult navigating the text on a computer before even getting to the form.

She recounts attempting to fill out something at an office, and asking for help with a computer.

“I went to the counter, I said could someone help me with the computer?  [They said], ‘it's pretty basic’. I said yes, but I need someone to help me with the computer because I don't know how or what to put in, because I can't read what's on it. “

Jack has to ask friends to tell him what a newspaper headline says; Cynthia has trouble understanding her son’s homework instructions, and measuring out medication like children’s Panadol.

Cooking can be difficult too, as teenager Kye found out. He struggled with basic literacy at school, while family violence at home kept him away, but developed a passion for cooking. He found it tough understanding measurements and quantities in the recipes he picked up.

For many people, literacy goes unconsidered in daily routines: the ability to buy a train ticket, to pay a bill, to communicate on social media, to read the news, a street sign or a café menu. 

The emotional toll of low literacy

Shame and stigma appear a common accompaniment to experiences of low literacy.

Almost all the guests on the show related an instance of bullying at school, or being ignored by teachers as their literacy slipped to levels below other students.

Cynthia recalls being teased by a classmate, who saw her riding a bike and was surprised she could.

“Because she thought I couldn't read or write she thought I wouldn't be able to do anything like ride a bike or swim,” says Cynthia. “She thought, because I couldn't read and write, I was dumb at everything.”

Kye also experienced this cycle of assumed ignorance, which resulted in teachers not prioritising his learning.

“A lot of the teachers, they never used to like help me out or just leave me aside, or they used to tell me to like wait or be quiet and like help the smart kids,” he says.

“I was skipping school because, what's the point of being at school when they're not going to like help me?”

Trina Johnson, also on the show, says no-one noticed she was falling behind in her reading, spelling and numeracy at school. She made a decision to not be the subject of bulling.

“I'd ask for help and I’d just get pushed aside,” she tells Insight. “So I thought well, instead of me getting picked on, I'll be either the bully or I will start the trouble in the classroom.”

She puts it down to a different style of learning, and as she progressed through school her literacy did not improve. At thirteen, she turned to drugs and alcohol, and was expelled in Year 9.

I wouldn’t wish [low literacy] on my worst enemy. It’s been a nightmare.

She took a job working in hospitality, at KFC, managing the food processing. She was mostly able to work well, without requiring literacy skills, but remembers a day when a girl working on the front counter asked her to fill in while she went on a break.

“I was like, ‘Oh I don't know how to operate the till’. She goes, ‘Oh it's pretty simple’ … And she was probably twelve, thirteen years-old, and I think I was about eighteen and I just turned and said ‘Look, I can't read it. I literally cannot read it’,” says Trina.

“And she goes, ‘What, you can't read?’”

“You live with shame,” says Mark Hopkins, another guest on the show. “I have for many years. It's something you just become accustomed to and, you know, that's your way of life. You think that, as a young person, that's how life is or it's going to be for you.”

Mark came from a well-educated family but struggled to reach the literacy levels of his siblings. He remembers trying to avoid the shame of being called on to read or write in class, by making excuses or even skipping school.

He’s since taken adult literacy lessons and improved considerably, but the fear of being outed has stayed with him.

Jack Coenan, and other guests on the show also recount experiences of being taken advantage of by friends and family.

Jack had friends take out leases, credit cards, mobile phone plans and car loans in his name and ask him to sign the forms, telling him they were to continue renting his property, or similar believable scenarios.

 “I wouldn’t wish [low literacy] on my worst enemy,” says Jack. “It’s been a nightmare.” 

Is there a solution?

Many guests on the show have developed their own ways of coping with life in a world that mostly assumes everyone is literate.

While the pervasiveness of technology has increased the need to have literacy and numeracy skills, it has also come to the aid of those lacking in them.

Jack, for example, says he would feel “lost” without the voice recognition software Siri, on his iPhone.

He copies and pastes emails, messages, instructions and information into Siri, which then reads it out to him.

Dave Tout was part of the team that helped perform the PIACC literacy survey with the ABS and the OECD.

A former high school teacher, he says the research has proven low literacy in Australia is a significant problem, though the solution is complex, and not easy.

 “I think the system is so set in its ways that to change a system to enable us to support all of our learners in the classroom is a really challenging task,” he says.

He believes an intergenerational approach is important, “targeting parents along with school kids and then making sure that adults have access, free and good access to classes.”

Reading Between the Lines
Why do so many Australians have poor literacy?

This intergenerational response is something Jack Beetson advocates too in his Literacy for Life program.

The course aims to increase levels of adult literacy within the community, encouraging community ownership of the issue by having local organisations, groups, councils and elders involved.

“You won’t get literate children unless you have literate mothers,” he says.

The foundation has been recognised by the NSW State Government for its efficacy.

A number of government-funded programs are in place too, including the Australian Migrant English Service (AMES Australia) and Skills for Education and Employment (SEE), which provides 800 free hours of literacy, numeracy and language training for job seekers looking to increase their employability.

Getting over the hurdle of going back to school and managing classes with adult life can be tricky.

Mark Hopkins, who has successfully gone through these later-life literacy lessons, encourages people to not be discouraged.

“I just want to say, if you're thinking about, you know, going back to school, it's not like going to school like you remember, “ he says. “Everybody's got the same problem. I say there is an opportunity to learn. It's not easy but we can give it, if you give it a go.” 

Insight investigates why so many Australians have poor literacy in Reading Between the Lines | Catch up online here: