Illiteracy a yearly $3b cost - report

The end result of low literacy levels is trapping people in a cycle of poverty, poor health, limited employment opportunities, reduced income potential and low productivity in businesses. Photo / Thinkstock
The end result of low literacy levels is trapping people in a cycle of poverty, poor health, limited employment opportunities, reduced income potential and low productivity in businesses. Photo / Thinkstock

Many Kiwis take their ability to read and write for granted but New Zealand needs to step up its game in tackling illiteracy, according to a report by the World Literacy Foundation.

The report, The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy, estimated that the social and economic impact of illiteracy to New Zealand is NZ$3 billion a year.

Andrew Kay, co-author and chief executive of the World Literacy Foundation said New Zealand needed to make inroads into the level of illiteracy in this country.

"Often, the end result of low literacy levels is trapping people in a cycle of poverty, poor health, limited employment opportunities, reduced income potential and low productivity in businesses."

The report comes ahead of next week's inaugural World Literacy Summit in Oxford, England, which aims to create long-term solutions to increase literacy rates and to create a map to eradicate illiteracy by 2020.

"We need to treat illiteracy as a disease that we are aiming to eradicate. We need to understand that early intervention can avert a lifetime of hardship, poverty and pain for a child, young person or adult who is struggling to read or write," said Mr Kay.

"The key message of the report is the eradication of illiteracy should be considered an investment rather than a cost."

Bronwyn Yates of Literacy Aotearoa said the idea that raising literacy levels was an investment "hits the nail on the head. The absolute big issue New Zealand has to understand is that we have to invest in ourselves. In terms of literacy it's critical, it'll drive up achievement - not just for adults but for every single person in their family, that's the amazing things about adult literacy. The moment you address the parents' literacy, you address the family's".

Ms Yates estimated there were more than a million people in New Zealand who struggled with literacy.

"A lot of people in New Zealand have some form of literacy - that complete absence of literacy skills is rare. And we can mask it by people saying 'there's no illiteracy in New Zealand' but our issue is rather the levels of literacy people having being sufficient to fulfill their own potential.

"Government, community providers and other other interested parties like workplaces need to sit down together and actually figure out, if there are over a million people with literacy needs, how do we stop that number from growing?"

An international study from 2008 measuring literacy and numeracy on a five-level scale, found 40 per cent of New Zealand's working population were below the minimum level required to participate in a modern economy.

Ms Yates said that while many New Zealanders took their literacy for granted, tasks like filling out forms stood in the way of many people.

"It's about being able to argue with ACC, or fill in forms, being able to think about which is the best deal for you financially in terms of shopping, so many New Zealanders take that for granted. Until we address it at school-leaving level, and we're not quite there yet, we're still having children coming out of high school coming out with literacy difficulties."

According to the World Literacy Foundation, an independent charitable body, more than 800 million people worldwide don't have basic reading and writing skills needed for basic tasks like filling out forms. Illiteracy costs the global economy more than US$1.19 trillion each year.

Tony Cree, chairman of the World Literacy Summit, said: "It's clear that improved literacy can benefit individuals and transform communities, making a difference to people and giving them a brighter future but we need to work collectively to ensure this happens. Our hope through the World Literacy Summit is to create long-term, sustainable solutions to increase literacy rates, and subsequently facilitate growth and development."

The Summit in Oxford would seek approval from literacy and development leaders across the world to improve teacher training and monitoring, support effective assessment systems for literacy and increase the gender and socio-economic equity in literacy levels.

- APNZ

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