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Literacy, Economy, and Society

039-0700-0006
February 1996

The results from the 1995 international adult literacy survey are in! According to Literacy, economy, and society: Results of the first international adult literacy survey which involved Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland (German & F rench speaking areas), Poland, and the United States, the literacy skills of American adults compare favorably with those in other developed nations. Five levels of literacy (Level 1, low) were defined in the survey, according to an individual's ability t o read and understand prose, documents, and material with quantitative information.

"This adult literacy survey shows that overall, we are on par with many of our international competitors, and in some instances we do better," said U. S. Secretary of Education, Richard Riley. Americans with the strongest literacy skills include large numbers of people with postsecondary education; those at the low end of the scale reflect a complex mix: older people with little formal education, school drop-outs, and a large proportion of low-skilled immigrants.


International Comparisons
Literacy distribution patterns are quite similar in Canada and the United States; both countries have relatively large numbers at Levels 1, 4, and 5.

The Netherlands shows great internal consistency across scales with an especially large number at Level 3 on all three scales.

Sweden is characterized by substantial numbers at all the higher levels on all three scales.


Literacy and Economy
Across all seven countries, literacy directly affects wages and income. In all cases, individuals at Level 1 are much more likely to have no income than those at other skill levels. At the same time, in all cases those at Levels 4 and 5 are more likely to be in the top income quintile. Individuals performing at Level 3 are also likely to have relatively high incomes.

Poland has the largest proportion of workers in the occupations requiring the fewest literacy skills: agriculture and other primary occupations. At the same time, Poland recorded the smallest proportions in the occupations requiring the most frequent use of literacy: managers, technicians, and clerks.

Respondents were asked to judge how well their literacy skills served them in the workplace, particularly in relation to their current jobs and their ability to improve their jobs. Few people rated their literacy skills for their current work as poor or even moderate. In fact, almost 2/3 of the respondents felt their literacy skills at work were excellent.

In all of the countries involved, more people rated their reading ability higher than their writing and numeracy abilities.


Gender Differences
On the quantitative scale, men outscore women in every country, though the difference in Canada is too small to be significant. In some cases, however, the differences are relatively large; in Sweden, for example, there is a 16-point difference.

On the prose scale, women slightly outscore men in some countries (most notable, Canada and the United States), but the advantage is not large in any of them.


Uses of Literacy
The survey asked about specific home and community literacy activities such as newspaper reading, book and magazine reading, and library use. Almost everyone reads a newspaper at least once a week (over 80% of respondents in every country reported doing so; over 90% in some countries), but daily newspaper readership varies from country to country from lows of 60% in Poland and 62% in the United States to a high of 90% in Sweden.

Fewer than 40% of respondents in any country reported reading books daily; about 66% read books at least once a month. Uniformly, more of those at Levels 4 and 5 reported reading books every day.

Swedish and Dutch residents are the most frequent users of libraries; Swiss residents reported the least use.

Those most likely to watch television for significant periods of time are usually at lower literacy levels. Over 10% of those in Level 1 reported watching more than 5 hours of television each day, except in Poland and Switzerland where television viewing is generally low. Over 20% of those at Levels 4 and 5 watched television less than one hour a day. About 10% of all respondents in Germany and the United States reported watching over 5 hours a day, but only 5% in the Netherlands watch this much television daily.


General Findings

Taken from: Literacy, economy, and society: Results of the first international adult literacy survey. (1995). Ottawa, Canada: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.




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