Imagine being unable to read a book to your children, fill out important forms or decipher ingredient labels on food or medicine.
That’s an unacceptable reality for a shocking amount of Australian adults, literacy experts said.
The exact number struggling with literacy across the nation is unclear, but the most recent, reliable survey, conducted in 2012, found more than 14 per cent have very low literacy skills.
That equates to more than 2.8 million people.
“People that are in that bottom percentage group would have trouble reading the back of a medicine box,” Australia Reading Writing Hotline Manager Vanessa Iles said. “They’d certainly have trouble reading to their children and helping them with their homework.”
Reading online bills, getting a drivers licence, writing a resume, signing up for volunteer work—even applying for bushfire assistance—are near impossible tasks for people in that category.
“I’m talking about people who were schooled in Australia, and they would find it difficult to fill in more than their name and address,” Iles said.
The scale of the issue has prompted the federal parliament to launch an inquiry into adult literacy levels, which will look at the broad ways it impacts people and their families.
“We know from research that people that have lower levels of literacy have lower health outcomes, they’ve got higher incarceration rates, they end up in lower skilled jobs,” Iles said.
Their kids’ health and literacy also suffer.
The Hotline once received a call from a nurse, concerned about the literacy levels of the young mums she worked with, she recalled.
“They weren’t signing immunisation forms because they couldn’t read them, and they didn’t trust what was in the form.”
“Their kids didn’t get immunised.”
Nowhere near enough is being done to address the problem, Iles said.
President of the Australia Council of Adult Literacy (ACAL) Jo Medlin agreed that any real improvement in adult literacy in the past decade would be a shock.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily gone backwards, but I don’t think it’s gone anywhere,” she said.
Programs to improve literacy for jobs seekers are fairly accessible, Medlin said, but if you’re already in work, or retired, or a stay-at-home parent, affordable opportunities are scarce.
“The government funding is focused only on adult literacy for work or employment,” she said. “There’s no conversation at government level about the other areas of literacy that are so important, like family literacy, health literacy, financial literacy—all the things that basically underpin your everyday functioning in society.”
Compounding the problem is an increasingly dire shortage of adult literacy educators.
“Most of the teachers in adult literacy are nearing retirement age and are leaving the sector, and at the same time we’re not retraining new teachers,” Iles said.
Both the Reading Writing Hotline and the ACAL will be making a submission to the parliamentary inquiry to call for more funding to establish literacy programs for the broader Australian public.
Specialised programs for Indigenous Australians are also desperately needed.
However, with little movement towards reducing or eliminating the problem, the next generation will inevitably suffer from poor literacy too, they say.
But with the right policy settings, Ms Iles is optimistic the trend could be bucked.
“People that have been seeking help have just not been able to get it,” she said. “If everybody that wanted literacy could access free literacy classes, it would make an enormous difference, just in one generation.”
By Tiffanie Turnbull