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Public libraries: central to adult learning and literacy.

The overwhelming body of research about how adults develop their literacy suggests that it is intergenerational, task specific and requires purposeful engagement with other literate adults. This puts libraries at the centre of adult learning and literacy. Outlined are international approaches that might provide an example of how public libraries can win the argument about their important role as providers and supporters of adult education. Edited version of a paper presented at the conference 'Learning for all: public libraries in Australia and New Zealand Melbourne 13-14 September'.


Australia has a significant problem with adult literacy and numeracy. The 2006/7 adult literacy and lifeskills survey (1) indicated that between 46% and 70% of adults in Australia had poor or very poor skills across one or more of the five skill domains of prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy, problem solving and health literacy. Further, that with the exception of the 15-19 year age group, each generational group had lower literacy skills than its younger counterparts. In other words, lack of language, literacy and numeracy is not confined to the young or to job seekers but impacts across the lifespan.

It has been more than 20 years since the last national policy on adult language and literacy, (2) and a foundation skills policy will be released by the Australian government soon. What we do know about the policy when it emerges is that it will most likely focus almost entirely on formal, competency based language, literacy and numeracy courses for adults because this has been the policy pattern for some time and because formal training looks tantalisingly easy to measure, at least in the short term.

As almost all publicly funded adult education in Australia is linked to labour market objectives and human capital approaches to productivity, we also know that it will be unlikely to target adults into the senior years. Most publicly funded Vet programs are targeted to 15-64 year olds--a policy lag if ever there was one. We also know that because attending a formal literacy class is so loaded with stigma, particularly for first language English speakers (as opposed to second language speakers who are literate in another language) the public policy response will more than likely be targeted at those who can be compelled to attend ie recipients of social security benefits.

Our policy approach is likely to continue to be focused on the narrowest possible programs aimed at the narrowest possible group.

The research into how adults develop their literacy over the lifespan suggests a different approach.
   Literacy is socially situated, culturally constituted
   and actively mediated by the local everyday
   demands of work and life. Like it or not, uses of
   literacy and numeracy cannot be generalised across
   cultures, nor taught as isolated technical skills (even
   though they can be taught as distinctive routines or
   procedures). Meanings depend upon the social
   context in which they are embedded.

For example, literacy is intergenerational, with the skills of one generation impacting on the next. Literacy and numeracy are essential steps on the pathway out of poverty. A concerted commitment is needed to build the literacy and numeracy levels of both adults and children in low socioeconomic status (SES) communities. In addition, lack of literacy impacts seniors as much or more than those of working age, a great concern given the aging of our population.

The 2006 ALLS survey found that the literacy and numeracy skills of the population tapered off for people aged more than 45 years, and were lowest for people aged 70-74 years. This could reflect the fact that older people had less education compared with younger persons, or that people experience deterioration in skills at those ages, or else that leaving the labour market could remove people from access to the types of literate and numerate activities that allow them to maintain their skills. Research into the precise combinations of reasons is unclear. Whatever the reasons are for the difference, the ALLS survey found that a substantial group of older Australians do not have the literacy and numeracy skills required by industry and are therefore vulnerable in the job market. Further, a substantial body of Australians will enter the third age without the skills required to access services, and remain socially connected.

Furthermore, community cohesion is essential to building literacy skills. Dropping off the edge: the distribution of disadvantage in Australia by Professor Tony Vinson (3) found that just 1.7 per cent of postcodes and communities across Australia account for more than seven times their share of top rank positions on the major factors that cause intergenerational poverty. The report highlights the particularly strong link between intergenerational poverty and low educational attainment and recommends a coordinated approach.

To summarise--the overwhelming body of research about how adults develop their literacy tells us that it is through purposeful engagement with other literate adults in a nonthreatening environment. Public libraries, with their focus on intergenerational reading, their informal nature, their popularity across the age span and their prominent location within disadvantaged communities tick all the boxes for the development of adult literacy.

The 20th century approach to addressing adult literacy and numeracy is to focus on the school system, in the belief that a strong school based foundation will set young people up for a lifetime of literacy and numeracy and that second chance or catch up education will be all that is necessary for the handful of adults who miss out on the basics in school.

The 21st century approach to adult literacy assumes that technological, cultural and labour market change will be so rapid that today's literacies simply will not suffice. It recognises that today's school students will move through multiple careers including into jobs that do not currently exist, some of which might not have even been dreamed of.

The OECD, the European Union, and leading OECD countries with whom Australia compares itself, all have lifelong learning policies which recognise that literacy is an ongoing endeavour developed through many contexts over the lifetime including through nonformal and informal means. (4)

This puts public libraries at the centre of informal lifelong learning and literacy.


(1) Australian Bureau of Statistics Aspects of literacy: assessed skills levels, Australia 1996 Canberra, ABS 1966

(2) Lo Bianco, J National policy on languages Commonwealth Department of Education. Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service 1987

(3) Vinson, T Dropping off the edge: the distribution of disadvantage in Australia Melbourne, Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia 2007

(4) Keams, P Achieving Australia as an inclusive learning society Melbourne, Adult Learning Australia 2005 p5

Other sources

Bardon, B Community education and national reform, Report prepared for DEST 2006

Burke, G Literacy, qualifications, jobs, income and growth NCVER search conference papers 2011

Castleton, G and McDonald, M A decade of literacy: policy, programs and perspectives An investigation by the Queensland Centre Adult Literacy and Numeracy Australian Research Consortium Griffith University ALNARC National Research Program 2001-2002 June 2002

Golding, Bet al J Senior men's learning and wellbeing through community participation in Australia Report to National Seniors Productive Ageing Centre, University of Ballarat, October 2009

Golding, B, Brown, M Foley, A and Harvey, J Men's learning and wellbeing through community organisations in Western Australia Report to the Western Australia Department of Education and Training University of Ballarat October 2009

OECD Statistics Canada Literacy in the information age. Final report of the international adult literacy survey Paris, OECD 2000 education/educationeconomyandsociety/39437980. pdf

Wickert, R, Searle, J, Marr, B and Johnston, B Opportunities, transitions, and risks: perspectives on adult literacy and numeracy development in Australia Review of adult learning and literacy vol 7 chapter 8 Routledge, 2007

Sally Thompson Chief Executive Officer Adult Learning Australia

Sally Thompson is the chief executive officer of Adult Learning Australia, the 52 year old national peak body for adult and community education across Australia. She began her career as an adult literacy teacher, is the former president of the Victorian Adult Literacy and Basic Education Council and is a member of the Victorian Adult Community and Further Education Board. Address: Adult Learning Australia PO Box 298 Flinders Lane Melbourne Vic 8009 email
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Author:Thompson, Sally
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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