August 19, 2017

We are the world

And we’re not very literate, according to an OECD study

A “severe literacy deficit” haunts the world’s most developed countries. Between one-quarter and three-quarters of the world’s adults don’t have a “suitable minimum skill level” for coping with the demands of modern life and work.

LIGHT READING More than 15% of people living in most of the developed countries participating in a recent study had the lowest levels of prose literacy. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress

That’s according to the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), a large-scale cooperative effort by governments, national statistical agencies, research institutions and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The study included 20 countries, representing more than 50% of the world’s gross domestic product.

Three types of literacy

The study rates three types of literacy on a 500-point scale:

  1. Prose literacy — the ability to understand and use information from linear copy, like editorials, news stories, brochures and instruction manuals. Average score across countries: 221 points (Level 1 of 5) to 301 points (Level 3).
  2. Document literacy — the ability to locate and use information in nonlinear documents, including job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables and charts. Average score across countries: 219 points (Level 1) to 306 points (Level 3).
  3. Quantitative literacy — the ability to use numbers in printed materials. Tasks include balancing a checkbook, figuring out a tip, completing an order form or determining the amount of interest on a loan. Average score across countries: 209 points (Level 1) to 306 points (Level 3).

The results?

In 14 out of 20 countries, at least 15% of all adults have only rudimentary literacy skills, researchers say, making it hard for them to cope with the rising skill demands of the information age.

A world of pain

Prose literacy rates in 20 developed countries

VINCENTE CAN'T READ Sweden ranks highest and Chile lowest among 20 countries in prose literacy, or how well people can use linear text like articles. But all of these developed nations face a 'literary skills deficit.' Source: Organisation For Economic Co-Operation And Development's 'Final Report Of the International Adult Literacy Survey'

Lowest literacy levels. Chile had the lowest average on all three scales. But it’s not alone. Countries with more than 15% of people at the lowest levels of prose literacy include:

  • Australia
  • Belgium (Flanders)
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovenia
  • Switzerland
  • The United Kingdom
  • The United States

Highest literacy levels. Sweden had the highest average on all three scales. All told, six countries have fewer than 15% of adults at the lowest level of prose literacy skills:

  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Sweden

But wipe that smirk off your face, Sweden. Even there, in the most literate country in the study, 8% of adults have “a severe literacy deficit.”

Five levels of literacy

The study divides each type of literacy into five levels:

Level 1: very poor. A person with Level 1 literacy, for instance, might not be able to figure out how much medicine to take based on information printed on the package.

Level 2: weak. These folks may have developed coping skills to manage everyday literacy demands. But their low literacy level makes it hard for them to face new demands, such as learning new job skills.

Level 3: basic. These folks have achieved a “suitable minimum” of literacy for coping with the demands of everyday life and work. This is about the skill level required to finish secondary school and get into college.

Levels 4 and 5: good to excellent. These folks have high information-processing skills.

“Even the most economically advanced societies have a literacy skills deficit,” researchers say. “Between one-quarter and three-quarters of adults fail to attain literacy Level 3, considered by experts as a suitable minimum skill level for coping with the demands of modern life and work.”
Source: Organisation For Economic Co-Operation And Development, ‘Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report Of the International Adult Literacy Survey,’ OECD, 2000

  • Write for Readability

    If you write at the 11th grade level, 97% or more of U.S. adults won’t be able to understand your copy, according to the Department of Education’s latest adult literacy test.

    Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's concise writing master class on Aug. 17-18 in San FranciscoAt Cut Through the Clutter — a two-day concise-writing master class on Aug. 17-18 in San Francisco — you’ll dive into the results of this massive worldwide literacy study to get a reality check on who’s really getting your messages and at what level they read.

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