International comparisons of adult literacy

In recent years, adult literacy has come to be seen as one of the fundamental tools necessary for successful economic performance in industrialized societies. Literacy is no longer defined merely in terms of a basic threshold of reading ability, mastered by almost all of those growing up in developed countries. As society becomes more complex and low-skill jobs continue to disappear, the concern about adult's ability to use written information to function in society continues to rise. This indicator presents data from a seven country comparative study of adult literacy. For the purpose of this indicator, "literacy" is defined as the ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities, at home, at work and in the community--to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential. Within countries, literacy levels are affected by both the quality and quantity of the population's formal education, as well as their participation in informal learning activities throughout their lives.

bullet Compared to most of the other countries assessed, the United States has a greater concentration of adults at both the highest and lowest levels of literacy across the prose, document, and quantitative literacy domains. Only Sweden had a greater proportion of its population (32 percent) score at or above level 4 across all three literacy domains than did the United States (21 percent) and only Poland had a greater proportion of its population score at or below level 1 (43 percent). In contrast, Germany, the Netherlands, and both Swiss populations have a higher proportion of adults in levels 2 and 3.
bullet The proportion of adults at each literacy level was similar across the prose, document, and quantitative domains in Canada and the United States. In Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, however, the proportion of adults scoring at the highest literacy level was greater on the quantitative domain than on the prose domain.

 

 

 

bullet The distribution of literacy proficiency across different age groups was fairly uniform in the United States, while in several other countries young adults had higher literacy levels than older adults. For example, the percentage of U.S. adults aged 26 to 35 scoring at or above level 4 on the prose domain was similar to the percentage of U.S. adults aged 46 to 55 scoring at that level (22 and 24 percent respectively). Within Germany, the younger group was almost twice as likely to score at or above level 4 as the older group (20 percent and 11 percent respectively). Differences by age in Switzerland, Sweden, and the Netherlands were similar.

 

bullet In general, there was a positive relationship between income and literacy level in assessed countries. The relationship appears to be stronger in the United States and Canada, however, than in Sweden and Switzerland.

Figure 3a. Income quintiles for each country, by prose level.

 

Figure 3b. Income quintiles for each country, by document level.

 

Figure 3c. Income quintiles for each country, by quantitative level.

 

bullet In each of the countries assessed, the percentage of the population unemployed decreases as literacy levels increase. The percentage of the population unemployed was often 2 to 3 times higher among adults at the lowest level of literacy compared to those at the highest level.

Figure 4. Literacy and employment, document scale.

 

bullet The relationship between literacy level and occupation varies across the assessed countries. For example, skilled craft workers in the United States and Canada have lower levels of literacy than workers in other countries, particularly Germany.
bullet For many countries, immigration is a source of new workers. The immigrant population assessed in each country is likely to have lower literacy levels than the native-born population. For example, in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland, one- third to one-half of all immigrants have only the most minimal literacy skills. It is important to note that the immigration policies differ in the degree that they promote or restrain the immigration of high and low skilled individuals.

 


Supplemental notes and tables

Description of the prose, document, and quantitative literacy levels

Table 3.1a: Distribution of population in each country, prose scale

Table 3.1b: Distribution of the population in each country, document scale

Table 3.1c: Distribution of the population in each country, quantitative scale