Literacy and numeracy in Ireland

One in six adults struggle with understanding basic written text. One in four struggle with doing simple math.

Literacy and numeracy statistics

The OECD Adult Skills Survey shows that 17.9% or about 1 in 6, Irish adults are at or below level 1 on a five level literacy scale. At this level a person may be unable to understand basic written information.

25% or 1 in 4 Irish adults score at or below level 1 for numeracy. At this level a person may struggle with doing simple math calculations. 42% of Irish adults score at or below level 1 on using technology to solve problems and accomplish tasks.

For this survey the Central Statistic Office (CSO) assessed 6,000 people aged 16 – 65 in Ireland. The survey was done in 2012 and the results were announced in 2013.


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Person using a mobile phone

What do we mean by literacy?

In the past literacy was considered to be the ability to read and write. Today the meaning of literacy has changed to reflect changes in society and the skills needed by individuals to participate fully in society. It involves listening, speaking, reading, writing, numeracy and using everyday technology like smartphones and google to communicate and handle information.


Why do people have unmet literacy needs?

There are many reasons why people struggle with reading, writing and working with numbers. Some may have left school early. Others may not have found learning relevant to their needs. In Ireland nearly 30% of the workforce has only Junior Certificate or less, while 10% has only primary level or no formal qualifications at all.

Most adults with unmet literacy needs can read something but find it hard to understand official forms or deal with modern technology. Some will have left school confident about their literacy skills but find that changes in their workplace and everyday life make their skills inadequate. For example, if a person left school before junior cert and didn’t have to use their reading and writing skills in their work or home life, they could easily get out of practise and lose confidence in their ability to use those skills. Literacy is like a muscle. If you don’t use reading and writing skills every day you can get out of practise.

There is also a stigma attached to unmet literacy, numeracy and digital literacy needs. Often people feel too embarrassed to return to learning and go to great extremes to hide their needs from their friends and family, which exacerbates the problem for them.

Health services

Does it predominately affect older people?

There can be an intergenerational impact – parents who have unmet literacy needs may then not be able to support their own children with their reading and writing. This can lead to their children falling behind and in turn having unmet literacy needs or a negative experience of school. Research has shown that up to 30% of primary school children from disadvantaged areas have unmet literacy needs. Research also shows that children encouraged to read and learn at home quickly develop better literacy skills.


Why is it important?

Unmet literacy needs has a devastating impact on individuals, families and communities. People with unmet literacy needs have low educational attainment, earn less income and are more likely to be unemployed. They also risk being trapped in a situation in which they rarely benefit from adult learning, and their skills remain weak or deteriorate over time.

People with struggle with literacy are more likely to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in volunteer activities. They are also less likely to trust others.

Unmet literacy needs also costs public services, businesses and the economy millions each year.

Taken together, the results emphasise the importance of literacy and numeracy skills for a more inclusive society – in people’s participation in the labour market, education and training, and in social and civic life.


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How do we compare to other countries?

Ireland rates 15 out of 24 countries for literacy – England (17.8%); Poland (18.8%); Germany (19%) and Northern Ireland (19.6%). Japan (6.1%) and Finland (10.6%) had the lowest proportions of adults at or below Level 1.

For numeracy, Ireland rates 18 out of 24 countries – Poland (23.5%); England (25.5%); and Northern Ireland (26.6%). Japan is the only country to have less than 10% of adults at or below Level 1 on the numeracy scale.

Adults aged 25 – 34 have the highest literacy and numeracy mean score in Ireland while adults aged 55 – 65 have the lowest mean score.


Literacy services in Ireland

Currently in Ireland there are over 40,000 adults attending literacy courses nationwide. This service is mainly provided by the ETB Adult Literacy Service. The adult literacy service is staffed by both paid and volunteer tutors. The National Adult Literacy Agency also offers a distance education service where adults can learn with a tutor over the phone or internet in the comfort of their own home.

Adult learning is a very different experience to school. Adult learning is all about addressing the needs of the learner, working at a pace that suits them and mapping out a learning path that fits in with their life and interests.

Adult literacy is co-funded by the Irish Government and the European Union. The budget for the Adult Literacy Service operated through the ETBs, is about €30 million and other measures in which literacy training is at least a component amount to another €3 million.

On International Literacy Day 2021,  the Government’s launched a new 10-year adult literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy for Ireland, Adult Literacy for Life

Read more about the Adult Literacy for Life Strategy
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