[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J23 1998-1 p31-33]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15, Cut Spelling and Papers by Chris Upward.]

Chris Upward revews two recent studis of Adlt Litracy Standrds in Britn.

Basic Skills Agency (March 1998) Survey of Adult Literacy and Numeracy Levels in every district and unitary authority in England, London: Basic Skills Agency, foldr of 8 sets of stapled sheets of outline data (also available on CD Rom, ful brekdown of data ward by ward).

Siobhán Carey, Sampson Low, Jacqui Hansbro (1997) Adult Literacy in Britain, London: The Stationery Office (for Office for National Statistics), 195pp, £30, ISBN 0-11-620943-7.

Th revews ar ritn in Cut Spelng.

BSA jeograficl survey.

JSSS has regulrly reportd on th past surveys of adlt litracy standrds produced by the british Basic Skills Agency (formerly Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit, or ALBSU), as listd in JSSS J20 1996/1 (p30, §1). Many of those surveys hav had direct or indirect spelling implications of som intrest or importnce. Th Agencys latest exrcise in this field (tho th actul survey was contractd out) difrs from erlir work in being jeograficly specific: its findngs sho how adlt litracy standrds vary markedly from one locality to anothr - from th best result of a population with just 9% lo or very lo litracy levls, to th worst result with 24.4%. Th purpos of th survey is to enable local orgnizations to target particulr needs, especialy in aplyng for govrnmnt grants for taklng litracy deficits. Thus this BSA survey is seen to mesh with govrnmnt policy of rasing litracy standrds (se pp28-29 abov regardng th National Literacy Strategy) and is timed as a prelude to th " millenium" (sic).

Unlike erlir BSA publications, wich typicly had th format of slim paperbaks, th presnt report is not formly 'publishd' at al (no ISBN), but consists of a foldr of 8 stapled sheavs of A4 sheets. Th first sheaf is a press-relese, th secnd a jenrl introduction to th litracy survey, th third sets out how th survey was administrd, th fourth givs th results for th difrnt localitis county by county, and th fifth givs th results in ordr of achevemnt from best to worst, district by district. Th remainng thre sheavs present simlr data, but relating to numeracy, not litracy.

Altogethr 8,804 intrvews wer conductd thruout England by questionair in th respondnts homes, with quota controls set for aje, jendr and workng status. Th respondnts wer selectd as fluent english speakrs ajed 16-60 ho had been at least partly educated in th UK. As sumrized in th press relese, " the literacy tests covered tasks like reading a short note, a recipe and a medicine bottle label, spelling words like apply and writing, and extracting information from the Thomson Directory", but riting was not othrwise testd. Th questionair took, on avraj, 30 minutsto complete for litracy and numeracy togethr.

Overal, 15% of respondnts wer classifyd as 'lo' or 'very lo' for litracy, with mor than twice as many, (33%) lo/very lo achevers for numeracy. Incorect ansrs for over 15% of th litracy questions rated a 'lo' classification, wile 'very lo' was givn for over 32% rong ansrs. For thre reasns we may surmise that th 15% classifyd as 'lo/very lo' myt be an undrestmat for th population as a hole. One reasn is that intrvews wer conductd in peples homes, wich autmaticly excluded th homeless and prisn-inmates ho ar nown to sufr hy levls of ilitracy. A secnd reasn is that a furthr 3% faild to complete th test, wen - we may again surmise - many perhaps felt unable to cope with it. And th third reasn is th exclusion of non-fluent-english speakrs.

Jeograficly th distribution is as one wud expect. Evry one of th 11 best scorng localitis (undr 10% 'lo/very lo') lies in th rural or prosprus suburbn southeast of England, with 5 in Surrey alone, 2 in Buckinghamshire, and 1 each in Berkshire, Essex, Hampshire and Cambridgeshire. Conversly, nearly al th 12 worst scorng localitis (20% or mor 'lo/very lo') lie in inr citis or traditionl industrial areas: 5 of th 7 at th very botm of th table in inr Londn, 2 on Merseyside, 1 each in Durham, Manchester and th W Midlands; slytly less expectd among these loest scorng localitis ar Corby and Leicester. Som of these areas ar caractrized by a hy proportion of non-UK educated adlts - yet these wer excluded from th survey.

If th survey enables govrnmnt to target areas in gretst need, and (via th mor detaild brekdown availbl on CD Rom) local authoritis to target points of gretst need even mor precisely, it wil hav proved its worth. Th fact that th results of th worst localitis ar around 250% worse than those of th best cries out for action.

Intrnationl survey.

If ther wer reasns for thinkng th abov BSA survey myt hav undrestmated th problm, that may seem confirmd by anothr survey, Adult Literacy in Britain (henceforth ALiB), publishd a few months erlir undr mor oficial auspices than th BSA, being mainly fundd by th Department for Education and Employment. This givs a figr of 22%, as against th BSAs 15%, for lo litracy (to be precise, for th loest of 5 levls of litracy). Curiusly, it was co-comissiond (tho not publishd) by th BSA and atractd th comnt (as reportd in th press) from th BSAs Directr that th problm seemd worse than had been thot - perhaps th BSA survey was alredy at th press.

As with al surveys, we must beware of asuming that like is being compared with like. Sevrl difrnces imediatly vitiate direct comparisn between th BSA and ALiB surveys: th sampl used for ALiB is less than half th size (3,800) of that used by th BSA; th subjects aje-ranje rises to 65, not 60 (oldr jenrations hav loer levls of litracy); it contains no riting or spelng elemnt, indeed th ALiB introduction (§1.2) virtuly equates litracy with readng only; th figrs for numeracy ('quantitative literacy') ar groupd with those for 'prose litracy' and 'document literacy'; and finaly it covrs Britn rathr than just England. Comparisns between th 15% for lo litracy levls found by th BSA survey and ALiBs 22% ar therfor not very meanngful.

Th two surveys also difr in ther focus. First, wile th BSA pikd out variations in litracy between parts of England, ALiB dos so between cuntris, both within th UK (th welsh scord loer than th english and scots) and intrnationly (especialy Chaptr 6), since it forms part of th International Adult Literacy Survey wich wil eventuly covr 20 cuntris. In this it makes amends for th lak of british involvmnt in th 32-cuntry IEA survey (1993) wich was discusd in JSSS J19 1995/2 (pp5-8). Secnd, ALiB investigates varius social angls of litracy, as implyd by th chaptr titles 2. Distribution of literacy skills, 3. Literacy skills and work, 4. Literacy in everyday life, 5. People with low literacy skills. Third, it is a far mor substantial production than th BSA foldr with its stapled sheavs. In total 195 pajes long in ful A4 format, pajes 8-79 discuss th findngs and ilustrate them with charts; pp81-155 consist of statisticl tables; and th rest provides bakground material, such as sampl litracy tests. Altogethr it is an impressiv publication.

Wile ALiB presents a mass of intrestng infrmation on many aspects of litracy levls in society (eg, corelated with jendr, aje, education, employmnt, incm), spelng reformrs wil be chiefly intrestd in any with orthografic relevnce. These ar in fact rathr few. Comparisn of litracy levls between english and a singl mor regulrly spelt languaj is apt to hylyt th harm don by th presnt antiquated condition of english spelng. In an intrnationl survey, on th othr hand, such difrnces tend to be blurd by othr variabls. This efect was seen in th IEA survey mentiond abov, and it is seen again in ALiB, indeed, as readng rathr than riting is th focus, any spelng efect is swampd by othr factrs. Nevrthless, th findngs of Chaptr 6 (Literacy skills in other countries), th longst in th book, ar of special intrest.

Figrs ar givn for nine cuntris: Canada, Gret Britn, Jermny, Nethrlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzrland (french and jermn sepratly) and th USA. Asesmnt was based on performnce with thre typs of text, 'Prose Litracy', 'Documnt Litracy' and 'Quantitativ Litracy', and graded into 4/5 litracy levls: 1 (th loest), 2, 3, and 4 combined with 5 as th hyest. No agregated scors for th thre typs of text togethr ar givn, but they ar esily calculated from Table 6.1 on p67. Th weakst scors by far came from Poland, but othrwise th thre cuntris with th larjst percentaj of performrs in th loest litracy levl wer th thre english-speakng cuntris (in asendng ordr) Gret Britn, th USA and Canada. If we then calculate th balance of performnces between th two loest levls and th 2/3 hyest levls 3 and 4/5, th foloing scors emerj: Poland -73, Gret Britn -3, USA +7, Switzrland (jermn) +8, Switzrland (french) +16, Canada +22, Jermny +27, Nethrlands +39, Sweden +72. Sweden had th best scors by evry mesurmnt, and th english-speakng cuntris scord quite wel at th top levl, beside havng th larjst numbrs aftr Poland at th botm levl.

Th survey also contains a vast quantity of intrestng mor detaild data that we canot discuss here, exept to make one point: Table 6.3 (p70) shos that wile most cuntris, especialy Poland, display a markd improvemnt thru th jenrations (th 56-65 year-olds hos education was disruptd by th World War II hav by far th worst scors), ther is least improvemnt in th english-speakng cuntris, and th yungst jenration of americns (16-25-year-olds) actuly shos a decline, with as many poor performrs as in th oldst jenration.

We alredy comntd that it is hardly posbl to draw direct conclusions from this survey th english-speakng cuntris is at least consistnt with such systemic dificltis, and furthrmor th decline in litracy levls among th yungst jenration coincides with th widespred fashn for neglectng fonics in litracy teachng in those cuntris. Th latr deficiency is now being remedid, but th spelng systm remains unmodrnized, with consequences clear in th clasroom if not from this survey.

As noted abov, th survey is overwelmngly concernd with readng rathr than riting skils. Previus surveys (eg, NFER, BSA) hav shown how much esir (hence cheapr) it is to asess readng than riting levls. Yet this imbalance between th two facets of litracy dos beg questions, as implyd by th findng that peple considr ther levl in readng to be hyr than in riting and numeracy (p41, §3.7). How importnt is riting, compared with readng, to peples ability to function in society? How wel do readng levls corelate with riting levls? Can we aford to neglect riting relativ to readng? How far can we, or shud we, seprate th two?

Th overal pictur created by ALiB is of significnt inequality in litracy standrds as mesurd along many difrnt social dimensions both in Gret Britn and intrnationly. We may feel that such findngs merely confirm wat any observr wud hav intuitivly expectd, but at least we do now hav confrmation, indeed th survey presents a welth of empiricl data that policy makers wil do wel to take on bord in th futur (perhaps th Nationl Litracy Stratejy is alredy doing so). Th need for som kind of remedial action is implicit in th findngs that a very larj numbr of peple even with poor litracy need readng skils at work, and that th chanje of employmnt patrns from hevy industrial to hy-tec makes hyr litracy demands.

Th next question is wat shud be don about it, and on this ALiB has nothing to say; th BSA survey at least enabled clustrs of lo achevemnt to be targetd, tho it dos not say how. Neithr survey mentions th dire state of english spelng as a factr depresng litracy levls jenrly.

Back to the top.