Literacy and access

Literacy can be a barrier to access for Australian users. Writing to an Australian year 7 level makes content usable for most people.

Literacy affects access to government services and information

Literacy is a person’s ability to read and write. It is also how well they can access written text in digital and print formats.

The effect of literacy on people’s lives is profound. It influences how they interact with each other and how they approach education, work and government.

Low literacy can make it hard to access government services and information.

Factors that affect literacy in English include:

Accessibility requirements

    User need:

    I can read and understand text, even if the content includes unusual words, shortened forms, or features languages other than English.

    Fundamentals:

    • Write in plain language. This helps all users and is essential for some.
    • Level AAA requires a lower secondary education reading level, after removal of proper names and titles (year 7 or between 12 and 14 years old).
    • Avoid (or explain) unusual words, phrases, idioms and so on.
    • Expand all acronyms on their first use.
    • Avoid using double negatives.

    Web Content Accessibility Guidelines success criteria:

    Reading levels in Australia

    ‘Reading level’ is the level of education someone needs to be able to read text. It is one way to measure literacy.

    In Australia:

    • about 44% of adults read at literacy level 1 to 2 (a low level)
    • 38% of adults read at level 3
    • about 15% read at level 4 to 5 (the highest level).

    People at a reading level 1 read at a primary school equivalent level. They can understand short sentences.

    Australian adult reading levels
    Reading level Percentage of adults at each level (%)
    Pre-primary level (below level 1) 3.7
    Pre-year 1 to year 6 (level 1) 10.0
    Year 7 to year 10 (level 2) 30.0
    Years 11 and 12 (level 3) 38.0
    Certificate IV (level 4) 14.0
    Diploma and above (level 5) 1.2

    Note: Percentages do not add to 100.

    Sources: Reading level statistics are from ABS (2013). Australian school-level equivalents for each OECD classification level are from ABS et al. (2017).

    Education and literacy

    People with higher literacy – as measured by reading level – generally have had access to a better education.

    Many factors influence people’s access to education, including where they live.

    Post-school education is easier to access if you live in a major city. For example, people in cities are more likely to have a bachelor degree than people in regional areas. But there are also areas of disadvantage in the major cities.

    An education doesn’t guarantee a reading level that matches the qualification. For example, about 30% of Australians have a diploma or higher, but only 1.2% of Australians can read at that level.

    Many people maintain their high-school reading level even if they go on to tertiary studies.

    Clear content helps all users

    Regardless of literacy levels, all users want to be able to interact with government easily. Respect their time by writing in plain language. Check that your content is a reading level 2 (Australian year 7 equivalent). This level also helps users with higher literacy. 

    Users with higher education also prefer content that’s easy to read. People with the highest literacy levels tend to be time-poor and have the most to read. The preference for plain English increases with:

    • a person’s level of education
    • the complexity of the topic.

    Content for general consumption needs to be accessible by everyone, regardless of literacy. Specialist content is more accessible for technical users when written in plain language.

    Understanding users

    Before you start writing, do user research. Don’t assume that everyone can access, read and understand what you write.

    Always make it simple for people to get what they need to do with government done. People might need an alternative to the digital service.

    Digital Service Standard requirements

    You must understand the needs of all users of your service and create content they can access to meet the Digital Service Standard:

    Ensure that people who use the digital service can also use the other available channels, if needed, without repetition or confusion.

    Do user research to understand how people interact with government services or information. Ensure users with low literacy have equal access.

    Criterion 12. Don’t forget the non-digital experience

    Release notes

    The digital edition has more detail and updates statistics, compared to both the sixth edition and Content Guide information on this topic.

    About this page

    Evidence

    Campbell KS et al. (2017) ‘Plain-style preferences of US professionals’, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 60(4): 1–12, accessed 12 October 2022.

    Content Design London (2021) ‘Specialist terms’, Content Design London readability guidelines, Content Design London website, accessed 13 October 2022.

    Loranger H (8 October 2017) ‘Plain language is for everyone, even experts’, Nielsen Norman Group website, accessed 13 October 2022.

    Morris M (17 February 2014) ‘Clarity is king – the evidence that reveals the desperate need to re-think the way we write’, UK Government Digital Service blog, accessed 13 October 2022.

    Trudeau CR (2011–2012) ‘The public speaks: an empirical study of legal communication’, The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, 14:121–152, accessed 12 October 2022.

    Trudeau CR and Cawthorne C (2012) ‘The public speaks, again: an international study of legal communication’, University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, 40(2):249–282, accessed 12 October 2022.

    References

    ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2013) Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia, catalogue number 4228.0, accessed 7 November 2019.

    ABS (2017) Educational qualifications in Australia, catalogue number 2071.0, accessed 7 November 2019.

    ABS (2019) Education and work Australia, catalogue number 6227.0, accessed 17 May 2020.

    ABS, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research and the Australian Government Department of Education (2017) International Standard Classification of Education 2011 (ISCED 2011) to Australian Standard Classification of Education (ASCED) concordance [PDF 731KB], Department of Education, Australian Government, accessed 7 November 2019.

    Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2018) ‘Australia’s health 2018’, Australia’s health series no. 16, catalogue number AUS 221, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 7 November 2019.

    Australian Public Service Commission (2016) APS employment data 30 June 2019 release, APSC website, accessed 7 November 2019.

    Grotlueschen A, Mallows D, Reder S and Sabatni J (2016) ‘Adults with low proficiency in literacy or numeracy 2016’, OECD education working papers No. 131, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development website, accessed 7 November 2019.

    Iles V and Osmond P (2019) ‘Ring, ring. Who’s still there? An analysis of callers to the Reading Writing Hotline’, Fine Print, 42(2):3–7.

    Kim S (2018) ‘Literacy skills gaps: A cross-level analysis on international and intergenerational variations’, International Review of Education, 64(1):85–110, doi:10.1007/s11159-018-9703-4.

    Loranger H and Moran K (23 April 2017) ‘Writing digital copy for domain experts’, Nielsen Norman Group website, accessed 13 October 2022.

    McHardy J, Wildy HJ and Chapman ES (2018) ‘How less-skilled adult readers experience word-reading’, Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 41(1):5, accessed 13 October 2022.

    Moran K (5 April 2020) ‘How people read online: new and old findings’, Nielsen Norman Group website, accessed 13 October 2022.

    Neilson J (13 March 2005) ‘Lower-literacy users: writing for a broad consumer audience’, Neilson Norman Group, accessed 7 November 2019.

    OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) (2016) Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), OECD website, accessed 7 November 2019.

    Thomas J, Barraket J, Wilson CK, Rennie E, Ewing S, MacDonald T (2019) Measuring Australia’s digital divide: the Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2019, RMIT University and Swinburne University of Technology, accessed 20 November 2020.

    van Deursen AJAM and van Dijk JAGM (2016) ‘Modeling traditional literacy, internet skills and internet usage: an empirical study, Interacting with Computers’, 28(1):13–16, doi:10.1093/iwc/iwu027.

    W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) (2020) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) overview, W3C website, accessed 16 May 2020.

    This page was updated Tuesday 27 February 2024.

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