Low levels of literacy impacts peoples lives in many ways

The Government recently publisheda strategy to tackle adult literacy. Here Chief Executive of NALA, Colleen Dube, says significant funding and strategic implementation is needed to improve literacy levels
Low levels of literacy impacts peoples lives in many ways

Imagine not being able to read a medicine label or help your child with homework. Picture: Stock

IMAGINE not being able to read a medicine label or help your child with homework.

Unfortunately, that’s the reality for half a million adults in Ireland. Even more have low levels of numeracy and digital literacy. People often ask how this can be in the land of Saints and Scholars and there are many reasons. The primary reason is that the Irish education system has failed these adults. Either by letting them leave too early or not making returning accessible or affordable.

This failure has a devastating impact on individuals, families and communities. People with the lowest literacy levels earn less income and are more likely to be unemployed. But the impact goes far beyond earnings and employment.

Individuals with literacy difficulties are more likely to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, are less likely to vote and understand public information.

This was most apparent during the pandemic for those who struggled to understand public health messaging, keep in touch with family online and identify fake news.

The Government’s new 10-year adult literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy announced recently promises to change all this. They’ve set ambitious targets to ensure that everyone has the necessary skills to fully participate in society and realise their potential. The Strategy contains all the essential elements for lasting impact. The link between literacy and disadvantage is clear but significant funding, a robust implementation plan and measurable targets will be needed to achieve its ambitions.

Many whom the education system failed first time round are fearful and embarrassed and lack confidence to return to learning.

They will need to be encouraged, supported and provided with learning opportunities tailored to their needs – whenever and wherever they need it – be it in their family, their local community or in their workplace. Over 10 years the Strategy will need to strategically plan and significantly increase the provision of literacy learning opportunities, access points and providers.

Many people may be preoccupied with the CAO process recently but we must not forget that over 300,000 adults in Ireland do not have any formal education equivalent to the Leaving Certificate and almost 900,000 people have no formal education beyond school level. Skills development can be more relevant and effective if linked to work. Employers also have an important role in training their staff; but some, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, will need public assistance to provide such training.

NALA Chief Executive, 
NALA Chief Executive, 

Equally, there are many barriers to participation in adult education such as childcare, technology and transport which will need to be considered like the approaches taken for students in further and higher education.

People with already-high levels of literacy and numeracy skills tend to participate the most in adult education, while those with lower levels of skills participate less – and often much less. They must be prioritised and incentivised to improve their skills otherwise they risk being trapped in a situation in which they rarely benefit from adult learning, and their skills remain weak or deteriorate over time.

Finally, literacy difficulties often prevent people from carrying out a range of everyday activities many of us take for granted.

 Therefore, it is just as important that we ensure that all organisations dealing with the public use appropriate approaches such as using plain English to make information and services more accessible.

The new Strategy should be commended for setting out for the first time a cross-Government, cross-economy and cross-society approach to addressing this. This means a whole range of local services will need to work together to ensure that literacy needs can be identified quickly and that the right supports and services are provided straight away.

We welcome this multi-stakeholder approach but the Strategy will require a detailed implementation plan to drive change. All activity must be monitored and evaluated across the various levels of the Strategy. This means developing indicators and setting measurable targets, along with a robust reporting process, to monitor progress. After all, both citizens and governments benefit from effective and understandable communications: citizens are more likely to exercise their rights and meet their obligations and governments are more likely to make better use of their resources.

Literacy is a fundamental right and must be a priority for all who are concerned with human rights and equality. 

Low literacy costs individuals in terms of lower life chances and the economy in terms of increased costs. High literacy, numeracy and digital skills allows citizens to make constructive choices, self-advocate and ultimately respond to external pressures and change.

We welcome the publication of the Government’s new 10-year Strategy and the collaborations to date and look forward to contributing to its implementation. Adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills are part of the solution to creating a more equal society and changing lives for the better. If we want to close the nation’s literacy gap we need to be innovative and ambitious. And we will need significant funding to achieve this.


Colleen Dube is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Adult Literacy Agency – an independent charity committed to making sure people with literacy, numeracy and digital literacy difficulties can fully take part in society and have access to learning opportunities that meet their needs.

For more on NALA’s work see https://www.nala.ie/

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