What is the relationship between literacy and single-parent families?

By Nicolas Jonas
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Single parenthood is an increasingly common phenomenon across many OECD countries, and one that affects primarily (though not exclusively) women. It can also have an impact on learning, as single parents face unique challenges. The pressure of balancing work and family can limit a single parent’s professional development, the well-being of their household and the development of their children. But little is known about how a single parent’s literacy proficiency and cognitive ability are related to children’s education results.

In a new working paper, we analyse data from the Survey of Adult Skills to examine the relationship between literacy proficiency and a range of family-related indicators – including fertility rates and family composition. This relationship has potentially important implications for social and education policy, as the family, together with schooling, is one of the most important settings in which children develop and reinforce their literacy skills. A clearer picture of parents’ characteristics and behaviours can therefore help us get a better understanding of how literacy advantage and disadvantage is transmitted to their children.

In most countries that participated in the survey, we found that young adults with low literacy proficiency have a higher probability of being a single parent, and that this relationship holds among both men and women between the ages of 16 and 39. Among those who scored in the lowest 20% in their country on literacy proficiency, 11% of young women and 4% of young men are single parents. Among the top 20%, the proportions are significantly smaller: just 4% of women and 1% of men. This association is largely explained by the fact that adults with higher levels of literacy also have higher levels of educational attainment. As a result, they tend to start families later in life than their less-proficient peers.

It would be interesting to identify groups of children from low-literacy families who are at risk of developing low literacy themselves. But our survey gathered a limited amount of information on the literacy proficiency and educational attainment of respondents’ partners, so we were only able to obtain figures on children living in single-parent families. On average, in the 30 countries for which data was analysed, some 3.5 percent of children aged 15 years or younger live in households where the single parent (generally the mother) is in the lowest 20% of the national literacy distribution. These children tend to receive less family support for their education – particularly in terms of economic and educational resources, and parental involvement in their schooling.

There are still other areas to explore, as well. In OECD countries, rising divorce rates – which increase the number of children living with a single parent – are concentrated among less educated and less literacy proficient couples. This trend is increasing over time, which has important implications for educational disparities between children from advantaged and disadvantaged families. Determining what drives these disparities is the first step toward determining how to reduce them.

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