We take a lot for granted.

Measuring the right amount of medicine, filling out a form or finding something on the internet.

Did you know that almost half of the adult population would have trouble doing that kind of thing?

Australia participated in an international survey (called the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies) in 2011–12. The survey looked at people’s ability to process information at work and at home in being able to:

  • read and understand written information well enough to get things done and to learn. This doesn’t include writing. (literacy)
  • interpret and describe mathematical ideas in real-life situations (numeracy)
  • use computers to talk to other people, find information and do tasks—described in the survey as problem solving in a technology-rich environment (PSTRE)

The Australian results were:

  • 43.7% of the participants have trouble making inferences, understanding longer texts and ignoring irrelevant information to find an answer—even where the  article had just as much (or more) relevant information in it (Level 2 or below)
  • 53.5% of the participants had trouble applying numbers in unfamiliar contexts, working with mathematical relationships or patterns or interpreting numbers in tables
  • 69% of participants weren’t able to find information on the internet if it needed them to use too many steps, use site that was in a form they weren’t used to or work out how to get over distracting or irrelevant information. This number includes people who were not rated because they refused to take a computer-based test or couldn’t do basic computer functions (like scrolling with a mouse).

And Australia did better than a lot of other countries involved in the survey.

Some of the influences that the study identified were:

  • sex—to a point: 59% of women couldn’t meet the Level 2 numeracy target compared to 49% of men. For literacy and PSTRE, there was no real difference.
  • age—in general, scores plateaued for participants in their late 20s and beyond, but started to drop for those in their 40s onwards. This could partly be because of access to (or wanting to use) continuing education or new forms of digital technology—but it could also be because a lot of older participants did  not wish to take the PSTRE component of the survey. In general women aged 25–34 did better than their male counterparts in every part of the survey except numeracy.
  • location—there were only minor differences, but the ACT scored highest in all areas, followed by Queensland in literacy and numeracy.

An earlier Australian Adult Literacy and Life Skills study from 2006 concluded that English as a first language and the level of formal—and continuing—education were relevant in Australia too, but the two surveys were too different for us to be able to compare the results.

The point is: this stuff is all about familiarity and practice—not about intelligence or interest.

Everyone is different and that’s why plain English is important—it helps you cut across the differences to speak to the largest number of people that you can. All you need to do is remember some basic principles.

Talk to us.

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