How do you define foundation skills when terminology is ‘in constant flux’?

This is the first of a three-part series that looks at three questions related to foundation skills support services in Australian VET. The aim of this series is to assist practitioners in their understanding of their roles, the complexity of issues at hand and the historical background of the field. This series uses past literature to investigate the three questions, although this should not be considered to be a literature review or encompass the entirety of literature on the subjects. Whilst these questions are posed, practitioners will realise that answers are not easily forthcoming (or even provided).


In 2012, the Australian federal government released its latest policy document on adult foundation skills, titled the National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults (Standing Council on Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment [SCOTESE], 2012). Its first policy document on ‘foundation skills’ and its first on literacy and numeracy since the Australian Language and Literacy Policy in 1991 (Newton, 2016), it defined foundation skills as being the combination of:

– English language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) – listening, speaking, reading, writing, digital literacy and use of mathematical ideas; and

– employability skills, such as collaboration, problem solving, self-management, learning and information and communication technology (ICT) skills required for participation in modern workplaces and contemporary life.

Here, foundation skills has two components: an LLN component and an employment component. Pinning down a universally agreed upon definition that exists over the course of a number of years has, however, proven to be elusive. In 2001, this point was raised by Falk and Millar when commenting: “literature associated with literacy and numeracy in VET comes from a variety of multi-disciplinary sources … [and] as a result, there are often difficult and overlapping concepts associated with the field” (p.8), and include such terms as LLN, basic skills, functional literacy, integrated literacy and numeracy, workplace literacy and numeracy, whole language and critical literacy and numeracy.

Falk and Millar also provide what they term the “most widely accepted Australian definition of adult literacy” (p.10) (at the time), established by the Australian Council for Adult Literacy (ACAL) as:

Literacy involves the integration of listening, speaking, reading, writing and critical thinking; it incorporates numeracy. It includes the cultural knowledge, which enables a speaker, writer or reader to recognise and use language appropriate to different situations. For an advanced technological society such as Australia, the goal is an active literacy, which allows people to use language to enhance their capacity to think, create and question, in order to participate effectively in society.

This same definition was also discussed by Suda (2001), who emphasised that literacy here goes beyond reading and writing texts and incorporates a range of information processing skills for meaning-making in a range of formats and for a range of social, employment and cultural practices. This expanded view from the traditional viewpoint of an acquired skill to the modern take of contextualised practice received much attention around the turn of the millennium.

Perhaps Wignall (2017) condenses this elusiveness of terminology best when stating the definitions of what constitutes foundation skills are “in constant flux” (p.3) and “a flexible approach to defining and redefining foundation skills is needed to accommodate the broad and shifting range of individuals’ skill development needs” (p.4). This ‘constant flux’ is apparent in literature by looking at how the terminology has changed over the years before and since Falk, Millar and Suda wrote in 2001.

Newton (2016) reviews literature on terminology in the first decade of the 21st century and notes the seemingly interchangeability of such terms as ‘basic skills’, ‘core skills’, ‘life skills’, ‘generic skills’ and ‘employability skills’ at the time, and provides an overview of the definition and development of the term ‘foundation skills’ in Australia. This development includes a suggestion by Perkins (2009) in her report Adult literacy and numeracy: Research and future strategy of “a move from talking about literacy and numeracy to a discussion of core skills or foundation skills“ to raise awareness and help “ensure literacy and numeracy is seen as a mainstream concern” (p.37).  Newton reports that the results of the 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey, the intentions of the incoming Labour government to promote an inter-relationship between education, skills and productivity and the work by Roberts and Wignall (2010) to integrate foundation skills into Training Packages can be seen as a significant stimulus for the definition provided in the National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults, which includes both an LLN component and an employability component.

The context of this integration is in part the subject of work by Black (2004) and Black and Yasukawa (2010), who provide background to the development of terminology and literacy and numeracy in policy prior to the 21st century. With references to the 1987 National Policy on Languages, the 1990 International Literacy Year and the 1991 Australian Language and Literacy Policy, Black and Yasukawa give a historical setting for a concerted effort to inter-relate adult literacy and numeracy with economic development and productivity, stating “The current rise of foundation skills represents the confluence of several national political and socioeconomic agendas which are based in large part on the human capital rationale, whereby improved literacy and numeracy skills will lead in turn to improved productivity and greater national prosperity” and where “private industry is playing a key promotional role” (2010, p. 35).

With and since the release of the National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults in 2012, however, the use of the term ‘foundation skills’ has been obscure, both within the Strategy itself and in subsequent documents. The Strategy states, “Australian governments agree that the [Australian Core Skills Framework] ACSF will be used as the standard framework
for measuring foundation skills and will support the use of
tools based on the ACSF” (p.15). The ACSF, however, describes the five skills of learning, reading, writing, oral communication and numeracy, and therefore, it is impossible to measure the remaining skills within the definition by using it, those of ‘digital literacy’ and employability skills’. Perhaps for this reason, the Strategy also mentions, “The Australian Government funded the development of a new Core Skills for Work Framework [CSfW], which assists with the identification, description and measurement of employability skills” (p.17), however, the CSfW, released in 2013, does not incorporate the employability skills of the Strategy’s definition and, instead, documents three skill clusters of ten entirely new skill areas. It is worth noting that Roberts and Wignall (2010) define foundation skills two years before the Strategy’s release as those that “encompass both the Core Skills (or reading, writing, oral communication, numeracy and learning) described by the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF) and Employability Skills” (p.3), yet, the Strategy chose to provide an alternative definition, whilst at the same time stating that the ACSF will measure them.

Complicating matters from the national perspective, when mentioning foundation skills in Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System (Joyce, 2019) (also known as ‘The Joyce Review’), only LLN and digital skills (LLND) were listed, apparently dropping the employment-related skills and the learning skill of the ACSF from relevance. Understanding that digital skills was now considered of major importance, the federal government recently released the Digital Literacy Skills Framework (DLSF), which now sits alongside (and perhaps in the future within) the ACSF. It is unclear, however, what relevance the Core Skills for Work framework still holds at a national level, with the only comment in relatively recent literature from Wignall (2015), who stated that it “has had little impact to date on practice around employability skills, but there is considerable potential for it to underpin the development of education and training products and practices that will strengthen foundation skills provision in future” (p.9). Nevertheless, training packages and units of competency currently embed and list both the learning skill of the ACSF and employment skills as key aspects whilst not yet explicitly embedding or listing digital literacy skills.

From a state perspective, terminology is no less clear, at least in Victoria. The Future opportunities for adult learners in Victoria: Pathways to participation and jobs – Discussion paper, produced by the Victorian Department of Education and Training (2018), has numerous references to “literacy, numeracy and foundation skills” on pages 4, 7, 8, 14 and 36, with the word ‘and’ curiously being included, as if either foundation skills were somehow separate and distinct from literacy and numeracy or if an error was made in production where the word ‘other’ was meant to be included to make ‘and other’. Furthermore, The Future of Adult Community Education in Victoria 2020-25: Ministerial Statement (Department of Education and Training, 2019) uses the term ‘core foundation skills’ without explanation of what the term means or why the word  ‘core’ was added.

As can be seen, a standard and widely accepted definition of the term ‘foundation skills’ in Australian VET does not exist. And this leads back to the original question: How do you define foundation skills when terminology is ‘in constant flux’? It is proposed here that this involves a national discussion between governments, industry and the education sector to agree on a definition, to update and amend Standards and regulation, to incorporate this definition in future announcements and to propose future dates for regular discussions on the subject, acknowledging that the definition will likely change as society changes. In a country that is steadily recognising the importance and complexity of foundation skills, this task is certainly achievable.


Black, S. (2004). Whose economic wellbeing? A challenge to dominant discourses on the relationship between literacy and numeracy and (un)employment. Literacy and Numeracy Studies, 13(1), 7-17 Retrieved from

Black, S. & Yasukawa, K. (2010). Time for national renewal: Australian adult literacy and numeracy as ‘foundation skills’. Literacy and Numeracy Studies, 18(2), 43-57.

Department of Education and Training. (2018). Future opportunities for adult learners in Victoria: Pathways to participation and jobs – Discussion paper. Retrieved from

Department of Education and Training. (2019). The future of Adult Community Education in Victoria 2020-25: Ministerial Statement.

Falk, I. & Millar, P. (2001). Literacy and numeracy in Vocational Education and Training. Retrieved from

Joyce, S. (2019). Strengthening skills: Expert of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training system. Retrieved from

Newton, J. (2016). Foundation skills policy contexts and measures of impact. Retrieved from

Perkins, K. (2009). Adult literacy and numeracy: Research and future strategy. Retrieved from

Roberts, A. & Wignall, L. (2010). Foundation skills in VET products for the 21st century. Retrieved from

Standing Council on Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment. (2012). National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults. Retrieved from

Suda, L. (2001). Policies and pedagogies for lifelong literacy: International perspectives for the 21st Century. VIC: Language Australia

Wignall, L.  (2015). Research to identify and qualify professional practice in foundation skills. Retrieved from

Wignall Consulting Services. (2017). Foundation Skills Professional Standards Framework – Final draft for trialling. Retrieved from