Are they actually ‘skills’ or are they ‘practices’ … or are they both, at the same time?

This is the second 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).


Newton (2016) explained that the 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey, with its standardised survey questions, was one impetus for the definition of foundation skills in the National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults. This, along with the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF), the Core Skills for Work (CSfW) and Digital Literacy Skills Framework (DLSF) that describe, measure and help assess the abilities of VET students, imply that foundation skills are a distinct set of skills that are measureable and consistent from context to context. On the other hand, the ‘most widely accepted Australian definition of adult literacy’ prior to the 2012 Strategy was provided by Falk and Millar (2001, p.10) to be

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 was interpreted by Suda (2001) as meaning literacy was not a skill (or set of skills) to be acquired “in a neatly prescribed fashion” (p.11) from which one only needs to learn and is then able to participate in society, but rather a social and cultural practice that develops in diverse settings, requiring negotiation by participants in specific contexts.

Lonsdale and McCurry (2004) present these two perspectives as the ‘Autonomous model of literacy’ versus the “Ideological model of literacy’, and attribute this distinction to Street’s 1984 work Literacy in theory and practice. Lonsdale and McCurry (p.7) summarise these two models as:

Autonomous model of literacy

  • Literacy is viewed primarily as the expression of a person’s intellectual abilities and various psychological tests are used to determine individual literacy levels.
  • Illiteracy is viewed as a deficit, with the individual held largely responsible for this lack.
  • Literacy is considered separate from its context and is mainly print-based.
  • The underlying purpose of literacy is to imbue into individuals an acceptance of the dominant ideologies and its explicit purpose is to enhance the economic productivity of the nation.
  • This model is aligned with the concept of human capital, in which intellectually trained workers form the backbone of the workforce and knowledge becomes a commodity to be exported to other countries.

Ideological model of literacy

  • Literacy is viewed as a social practice and as a social responsibility.
  • There are multiple learner-centred literacies involving a diverse range of skills and understandings, including technological and computer literacies.
  • Critical thinking skills play an important role as enabling tools in this conception. Ethnographic approaches are adopted as assessment tools.
  • There is a strong focus on the social context in which literacy practices take place and a consequent shift from narrow vocational outcomes for individual learners to more holistic outcomes related to empowerment and capacity-building for both individuals and communities.

Lonsdale and McCurry continue to explain that if literacy is context and social specific, then a universal literacy is not pragmatic or achievable and a multitude of literacies exist across space and time, a concept that has been termed ‘New Literacy Studies’ or ‘New Literacies’. This has given rise to new terminology, such as computer literacy, digital literacy, scientific literacy, information literacy, social literacy, financial literacy, environmental literacy and health literacy, all of which relate to a broad classification of foundation skills.

Falk and Millar (2001) provide a range of research on the social context of New Literacies appropriate for the VET field, and highlight three points in particular: 1) its ‘integrated’ and ‘embedded’ nature, whereby literacy and numeracy skills are not “assumed to be teachable separate from the actual task” (p.13), and where teaching, in a vocational setting, is done in the context of the job, 2) where “the emphasis is not so much on the text or the product, but on the nature of language as being a part of any social context” (p.16) and 3) “in which basic skills for decoding, encoding and fluency connect to all aspects of an individual’s and a community’s sense of social identity and capacity to command social resources” (p.16). Measuring a VET student’s foundation skills using a standardised tool against a pre-defined standardised outcome automatically defaults a foundation skills support service to remedial, deficit-bridging approaches, but literature on social practices reveals another option, one of a broader set of context-specific needs.

Black (2004), seemingly unconvinced by the distinct and measurable set of skills narrative (the autonomous theory), claims Australian government policies, initiatives and programs for literacy provision are aimed at improving employment and economic statistics, yet questions the casual relationship between literacy and (un)employment. To quote Black (p.4),

This ‘model’ of literacy [as a set of technical skills] has been termed ‘autonomous’ by Street (1984, 1993) because literacy is considered a cognitive skill relatively autonomous of social context. In many studies based on this model, the literacy levels of particular groups of people are measured using a range of indicators, and usually higher literacy levels are found to correlate with higher income/status jobs, and the reverse is the case for lower literacy levels (for recent Australian studies, see Lee and Miller 2000; Miller and Chiswick 1997). The measures or the indicators of literacy vary considerably across different studies, ranging from the estimations and beliefs of employers and their organisations (see House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training 191:9-12), to sophisticated statistical surveys conducted across a range of standardised literacy related tasks (e.g. OECD 1995, 1997, OECD/Statistics Canada 2000, Australian Bureau of Statistics 1997). On the basis of both these beliefs and the statistical findings, powerful institutions invariably assume the authority to identify individuals and groups of people as lacking or deficient in literacy skills and to ‘prescribe’ some form of literacy provision for the economic wellbeing of all concerned; individuals, enterprises and the nation.

Speaking about the large-scale international surveys of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) specifically, Black writes (p.4),

These surveys with their seemingly ‘objective’ findings lead to commonsensical assertions about the state of literacy in different countries, and they enable the OECD and others (government agencies in particular, which draw on the OECD finding) to present themselves as arbiters of what counts as literacy and to ‘prescribe’ solutions involving the need for increased literacy provision.

Further (p.5),

Critics of the IALS [one OECD survey] point out that standardised literacy measures are unlikely to accurately describe the literacy activities/practices of the groups of people surveyed largely because they fail to adequately account for different cultural contexts.

Following from there, Black details the alternative (ideological) view in which evidence from a large range of research suggests that literacy and numeracy are used within social networks and ‘communities of practice’, to negotiate and contextualise communication, and what that communication means to them is of far more value than a widely-standardised and neutral set of autonomous skills.

By revealing, however, that “usually higher literacy levels [as measured by standardised testing] are found to correlate with higher income/status jobs, and the reverse is the case for lower literacy levels” (p.4), arguments against the ‘autonomous model’ seem weakened. If there is a correlation between higher literacy levels and higher incomes, then the autonomous model must have some validity, depending on a particular purpose.

Lonsdale and McCurry (2004), Mayer (2016) and Cameron (2016) attempt to portray a co-existence of these two seemingly distinct viewpoints of literacy, whereby a separation of the two is at times confusing and that a clear distinction between the two perspectives is not always apparent. Lonsdale and McCurry (2004) explain that some skills can appear to be situation-specific but are also, simultaneously, common to all contexts, providing the example of ‘computer literacy’, which can be both a generic skill and a social-specific literacy. Mayer (2016) provides a detailed literature review on the human capital versus social practices debate and concludes, “While human capital and autonomous models may suggest that distinct skills can be taught and that they will contribute to the economic inclusion of previously marginalised individuals, this review has shown that this is not the only perspective in the research literature.” (p.22). Cameron (2016) adds recent research, documented as a ‘pluralistic approach’, is a way to incorporate these two perspectives, citing three pieces of research that explore performance measurements across contexts, proficiency measures against literacy/numeracy practices over time and cognitive processes across life domains. Cameron states clearly that none of the perspectives presented are considered to be superior, as each have their own use, and it is promising to learn that after the late 20th century and early 21st century debate over two perspectives seemingly as odds with each other, there is the possibility through more recent research to show how they can both be integrated into VET support.

With much literature discussing government focus on skills for employment and economic development, for example Black (2004), Black and Yasukawa (2010) and Falk (2001), it is interesting that the federal government has acknowledged both skills and practices in its National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults. On page 2, it is stated, “Foundation skills development includes both skills acquisition and the critical application of these skills in multiple environments for multiple purposes”. This suggests that the Strategy fuses the autonomous model of independent ‘skills acquisition’ with the importance of social practices via ‘critical application’ of those skills. If, therefore, foundation skills are a set of isolated, individual and measurable skills, then deficit approaches to develop them are valid, along with the set of frameworks to measure them (ACSF, CSfW and DLSF), but if foundation skills are interconnected, social and negotiable practices, then altogether new approaches to informing, teaching, measuring and reporting must be created, approaches that research and literature have yet to clearly define.


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.

Cameron, L. (2016. The salience of diversity in foundation skills contexts, pedagogies and research. Retrieved from

Falk, I. (2001). Sleight of hand: Job myths, literacy and social capital. (CRLRA Working Paper No. RA-D14/2001) Retrieved from

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

Lonsdale, M. & McCurry, D. (2004). Literacy in the new millennium. Retrieved from

Mayer, D. (2016). Exploring perspectives on adult language, literacy and numeracy. Retrieved from

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

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