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Research delves into new literacy training for adu

Media Statement 22 May 2008

Research delves into new literacy training for adults

A four-year Wanganui-based research project is providing volumes of new information to help improve adult literacy standards in New Zealand.

The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology has invested almost $2 million in the study, being carried out by Massey University researchers in partnership with the Wanganui District Library.

The project focuses on adult literacy and employment in Wanganui and surrounds and seeks to create new employment opportunities through higher literacy standards. It identifies barriers to adults improving their reading and writing skills as well as highlighting their preferred learning options.

It is believed to be New Zealand’s first longitudinal adult literacy study, with researchers working with adult students to learn more about the success of literacy training and the effects of improved literacy on employment and personal relationships.

A 1996 international adult literacy survey indicated that about 48 per cent of adult New Zealanders lacked adequate literacy skills and about 64 per cent of managers had poor to average literacy capability, although many of them did not recognise the problem.

Massey University Associate Professor Frank Sligo, who is leading the project, says a follow-up survey due to be released shortly is likely to show that the rate of literacy may not have improved significantly in the intervening years.

He says the research provides important guidelines about how to turn around the poor achievement. It also shows that improved literacy opens up more employment opportunities, results in better health, personal and working relationships and life skills, and builds greater confidence and motivation.

The findings will provide a strong basis for policy recommendations and advice to government agencies, including the ministries of Education and Social Development and the Labour Department.

The research has found that:

• Interventions are needed to diminish barriers such as lack of learning resources at home, lack of self esteem and lack of self confidence, and to align personal support systems

• An urgent focus for literacy policy must be how to keep children in school. When students have prematurely given up on school, or visa versa, the likelihood of them ever achieving high levels of literacy is slender

• Schools need to meet a variety of different learning styles

• Urgent efforts are needed to encourage people of low functional literacy into ongoing training

• Multiple disadvantages such as poverty, transport difficulties, and a family’s need to shift locations compound and undermine literacy attainment.

“People could previously disguise poor literacy by working in jobs that did not require reading or writing abilities, but computerisation has changed the working environment,” says Professor Sligo.

“We need to find ways of providing literacy training for those who have failed at school and who find it difficult and challenging to make the transition to literacy as adults.”

Professor Sligo says the study is identifying successful training methods for building adult literacy, which is critical for the demands of a complex, knowledge society.

“We have to become more literate to succeed as a knowledge economy, to improve workplace productivity and to maintain first world status.

“Workers must have the ability to maximise value in the workplace so we must keep ratcheting up literacy skills,” he says.

There have already been many positive spin offs from the study, including a family and prison literacy programme and the appointment of a post-doctoral fellow to continue research in this area. Additional research is linking literacy learning with enterprise, investigating work place schemes that help remove the barriers to learning for busy staff.

Further details of the research can be obtained from:


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