Understanding the costs of reading problems in your workplace

list of workplace issues associated with poor reading


We know that year after year, 35% of school leavers are functionally illiterate, and they don't get better with age. In addition we have a high immigration intake from non-English countries.

There are several factors that determine literacy levels, and the most important is "phonemic awareness". This is the familiarity of the links between spoken sounds and text on the page, and how to connect the text with words in vocabulary.

The main cause of the dysfunction was the adoption of "whole word" teaching techniques in the late 1960's. This technique held that words should not be "sounded out" in the beginning stages of reading, but words should be learnt in memory, as whole objects.

It resulted in a devastating drop in reading ability. Reading vocabularies dropped from 30,000 words (at age eight) to just 5,000. It particularly impacted on words of similar shape/sound (stake and steak and stack) and multi-syllable words, where the shape of "adventure" is similar to "adventurous" or "advantageous".

It is directly noticeable with words like "their", "there" and "they're", and "your" and "you're".

The hidden aspects are with "quality of vocabulary" which is not just the number of words, but the meanings attached. The "whole word" technique used "contextual guessing" as a valid way to establish meaning of a word (using the words surrounding it). This results in poor meanings attached to words, or simply wrong meanings.

Those disastrous years are working their way through the workforce. Phonics replaced the "whole word" approach in about 2005. It is a common problem throughout the English speaking West. The astonishing aspect is how "whole word", without any research or statistical support, managed to dominate the literacy education of TWO generations before the education systems finally put it away.

So that is why your workers have difficulties. What is the answer? Phonics, relearning to read from the first principles.

It is highly likely that YOUR business has several employees who struggle with their literacy.

The ABS research shows ...

  • 21% of Australian adults have enhanced reading skills
  • 33% have limited skills
  • 46% have no skills.

An Information Economy
Today, we work around information. In manufacturing and industry, the image of the "low-skilled worker" has been replaced by a worker who controls technology, who plans and organises schedules, who can anticipate problems and develop autonomous solutions.

Management has also changed. It has moved from the autocratic "top-down" philosophy, to a team of professionals who rely on their workers for timely, accurate information, and who understand that knowledge is productivity.

With the overwhelming shift to technology, the best description of a modern worker is "manager of technology", a person who can change roles and develop skills to boost productivity.

Lost Productivity
75% of Australian businesses report that literacy is a major issue. With our increasing reliance on immigrant labour in our factories, offices, and in retail and hospitality, literacy has emerged as the 'make or break' issue for Australian business over the next 20 years.

  1. The first and most pressing is the risk of injury and even death of employees who can't understand the meaning of everyday words and terms, including words like "mandatory", "hearing protection", "procedure" and "authorised". Workers may also be unable to leave instructions or warnings to employees, particularly in shift work; may incorrectly interpret safety or repair manuals; or not be able to understand OH&S instructions given by their organisation.
  2. The second issue is inefficiencies caused by employees not being able to communicate fully with the people they interact with at work. For example, if an employer sends an instruction via email and this instruction is misinterpreted, the work of the employee will need to be redone once the error is identified, making the individual, and the organisation, less productive overall.
  3. The third issue is that low literacy and numeracy skills are a huge barrier to upskilling.

Literacy and numeracy problems become particularly evident at the supervisor level. Many good workers effectively hit a glass ceiling at this level because their limited literacy and numeracy skills prevent them from progressing further and from making a greater contribution to their workplace, and to their own career.

This is a particularly significant issue, given the number of industries experiencing skills shortages, and the essential role that upskilling can play in helping to alleviate skills shortage pressures.