Tag Archives: Literacy in New Zealand

The Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 2/2

The Importance of Literacy

A Literacy at Work study, published by the Northeast Institute in 2001, found that business losses attributed to basic skill deficiencies run into billions of dollars a year due to low productivity, errors, and accidents attributed to functional illiteracy. Source: Functional

In Conclusion:  I taught in California’s public schools (1975 – 2005) and was teaching English and reading when the educational system was changed dramatically from the top down (ignoring the protests of classroom teachers at every step—teachers were not part of the decision making process) starting in Washington D.C. in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk. The next step was the 1989 education summit that involved all fifty state governors and President George H.  W. Bush followed more than a decade later with the adoption of national education goals in the year 2000 under his son, President G. W. Bush.

Before these changes, most of the public schools identified students that were falling behind in literacy (mostly because the parents of these students were not part of the education process of learning to read and write) and were then moved into learning tracks and different classes with goals designed to deal with the challenge of parents not reading at home.

In the early 1990s, when the English/Reading department at the high school where I taught was told that tracking was going to be abolished and all students, no matter his or her reading abilities, would be placed in grade level classes working out of grade level textbooks (this meant students reading at second or third grade would be reading out of textbooks written at ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade), the English and reading teachers protested and managed to hold off these changes for about three years before the politicians (elected school boards and the adminstrators hired to work for the school board to run the district) forced the end of tracking.

About the same time, a program called The Whole Language Approach to Reading and Writing was implemented and again the teachers protested but were forced to comply or else.

The foundation of this program was reading for fun outside of the schools with parent support (you may already have guessed how this worked out).  Student and parents were told that children had to read a minimum of thirty minutes or more a day outside of school hours, seven days a week besides doing the school work and homework assigned by teachers. A decade later, it proved to be a total failure and was cancelled. California, where I taught, had ranked near the top in literacy when this program was launched. A decade later, California was almost dead last compared to all other states.

Parents make the difference – mine did, and I learned to enjoy reading at home.

The average functional illiteracy rate as reported by the UNDP of the six dominate English speaking countries that were once part of the British Empire and have Caucasian majorities with roots mostly to the United Kingdom was 19%.

Adjusted for errors and/or under reporting, the average percentage changes to 30.7%, more than 10% higher than the United States.  It doesn’t matter which average we use in this comparison of cultures that are fundametally the same.  The Untied States is one percent above the average reported by the UNDP but 10.7%  lower than the corrected average.

The US is either ranked fourth in literacy according to the UNDP or first after we adjust for errors and/or under reporting.

Does that sound as if the public education system in America is broken?

Return toThe Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 1


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga.

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The Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 1/2

In Not Broken, a five-part series, I pointed out a number of comparisons to show that America’s public school are not broken. In Part 5, I provided evidence that culture (Asian/Pacific; White; American Indian/Alaska Native; Hispanic/Latina, and Black—the US may be one country but it has subcultures and each subculture has its own unique characteristics) influences a child’s ability to achieve functional literacy.

After Part 5 appeared, it took a few days before I realized I missed an important comparison: the English speaking nations that were all colonized and ruled by the British Empire establishing links to a common culture.

The majority in each of these countries is White. The influence of that White dominated culture has much to do with the structure of the schools in those countries today and the way teachers are treated.

Note (to establish the dominant ethnic group and/or culture of each country):

In 2009, the census in Australia reported that 92% of its citizens were identified as White.

In 2006, the census in Canada reported that 67.32% of its citizens were identified with links to the UK, France and Ireland

In 2006, the census in Ireland reported that 94.9% of its citizens were White.

In 2009, the census in New Zealand reported that 56.8% of its citizens were identified as European.

In 2001, the census in the United Kingdom reported that 92.1% of its citizens were White.

In 2007, the estimate in the United States was 79.96% of its citizens were White.

For this comparison of literacy, I focused on six of the thirty-six English speaking countries that were once ruled by the British Empire.

The following information comes from a report published for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 1994–2003. According to this report, we may discover the number of people in each of these countries lacking functional literacy skills (% aged 16–65).

Note: In addition, I researched each country to discover any reports that confirmed the reported percentages and in several countries, the percentage of adults that were functionally illiterate may be higher.

1. Australia = 17% (the actual number may be much higher)

However, it may be much worse in Australia than the UNDP report says. Brendan Nelson, Education Minister said, “About 30 percent of Australian children who are leaving the school system in Australia are functionally illiterate.” Source:

2. Canada = 14.6% (the actual number may be much higher)

According to the two following quotes, the functional illiteracy rate in Canada may be much higher than what the UNDP reported: “About 42% of young adults age 16 to 65 scored below level 3 in prose literacy, which is considered the threshold for coping in society. Source: Vivele Canada

In addition, CBC reported on Canada’s shame: “Nearly 15 percent of Candains can’t understand the writing on simple medicine labels such as on an Aspirin bottle and an additional 27% can’t figure out simple information like the warnings on a hazardous materials sheet.”

3. Ireland = 22.6% (the actual number may be a bit higher)

In addition, Irish reported, “The dumbing down of Ireland – 23 percent of males are illiterate. A Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study has shown that one in six Irish students has significant reading problems while 23 percent of Irish males have lower than “functional literacy.”

Then reported, “The horrifying figure of 24 per cent adult illiteracy was first published in an OECD survey in 1996, and put us close to the bottom of the international league. (In Europe, only Poland scored worse than we did.)

“But in the months prior to the publishing of the survey results, government ministers were at pains to deny the figures which were already filtering through.”

4. United States = 20% (this percentage appears accurate)

The report of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy in the United States says:  “After completion, this massive assessment revealed that only thirteen percent of American adults are proficiently literate, most of whom hold a college degree, while the majority merely have intermediate literacy skills. However, the population of adults with basic or below basic skills total forty-three percent according to NAAL research, which is far higher than those with proficient skills.

“In fact, the term “functionally illiterate” is frequently used to describe the estimated twenty percent of adults in the US who cannot perform basic tasks involving printed materials. Functional illiterates may have trouble filling out a job application, using a computer, understanding written instructions, reading a contract, and many other related tasks. Many of these citizens are not able to hold a job, and those who do work regularly have difficulty with occupational tasks and career advancement.”

5. United Kingdom = 21.8% (this percentage appears accurate)

6. New Zealand = 18.4% (the actual percentage may be much higher)

Education reported that levels three and above on the International Adult Literacy Survey  (IALS) indicate “functional literacy” while Levels 1 and 2 indicate “functional illiteracy”.  The survey found that 45% of adult New Zealanders were in levels 1 and 2 for prose literacy, 50% for document literacy and 49% for quantities literacy (the average of the three is 48%).

If Josh Harden can read to his young children as he is dying, what is your excuse?

Continued on September 11, 2012 in The Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 2


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga.

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper right-hand column and click on “Sign me up!”


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