Literacy: Words count

Directorate for Education

New test results show that far too many adults lack the basic tools needed to get on in today’s world, in which the written word is so important. Governments can help, not least by improving access to adult education.

Could it be that the revolution in communications technology is reaffirming the pre-eminence of one of civilisation’s oldest tools: the written word? Matters that barely a decade ago would have been dealt with orally by telephone, for instance, now transit via e-mail or text messages.

For some airlines it is even cheaper to order tickets online than by phone! Working, shopping, travelling—the written word is back with a splash, so much so that it is becoming all the harder for people to enjoy the benefits of modern society if they do not master its tools. Yet according to a new report by the OECD, between one-third and over two-thirds of adult populations do not have the basic skills to play a full role in society.

A popular story related by those combating illiteracy in France concerns a delivery man who had managed to pass his driving test thanks to a prodigious memory. He was working well in his usual area–until he was transferred! Like this man, difficulty in deciphering the signs around us can affect our lives at any time, and our ability to adapt to the world in which we live and take informed decisions. How can people deal responsibly with such things as insurance, health or retirement if they do not have the basic skills to read and complete a form? Basic skills deficits also carry a cost to society as a whole, whether through obstacles to innovation, or the risk of social exclusion.

The OECD report on adult literacy, based on the international Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) conducted among a selection of OECD countries–Canada, Italy, the Mexican State of Nuevo León, Norway, Switzerland and the United States–and Bermuda, tackles these issues. The survey focuses on skills gains and losses, and sheds light on the relationship between skills and employability, wages and health, for instance. Individuals were tested for prose literacy, which is understanding continuous text; document literacy, which demands deciphering items such as payroll forms; numeracy; and problem-solving skills. A final test was on how people use computers.

The first surprise in the report is the relatively small proportion of people with the minimum skills required to understand and use the information contained in a written text. Over two-thirds of Norwegians performed to this level or better. But the figure falls to around 60% of people in Bermuda and Canada, a little below 50% in Switzerland and the United States, around 20% in Italy and 11% in Nuevo León. So there are clearly inequalities not only between, but also within, countries. For example, the gap between the lowest and highest levels of basic skills is narrow in Norway and Switzerland, but much wider in Italy and the United States. This gap is significant, for the study shows how it varies in line with a country’s patterns of social, economic, health and educational performance.

The gender gap is quite small with regard to literacy in general, though women tend to be better at prose literacy and men at numeracy and document literacy. What is striking is the generation gap (see graph). In every country in the survey, young people perform better and proportionally more of them achieve higher scores for basic skills.

This suggests that basic cognitive skills diminish as people grow older. Reading and writing skills seem to require practice, just as muscles need exercise. In other words, “use them or lose them”. But the opposite is also true: old dogs can learn new tricks. People’s skill levels may not be determined for life by innate factors, such as parental or social background. The trouble is, a too high proportion of adults with poor literacy skills still do not have access to formal learning. Breaking this vicious circle is behind the growing interest that countries are showing in education for adults in general, and for those with poor basic literacy skills in particular.

Take workers, for instance. By and large, more highly skilled workers tend to work longer, experience less unemployment and earn significantly higher wages than lower skilled workers. They also tend to be better at using computers, which goes some way towards explaining their ability to access higher-paid jobs. According to the survey, age and income levels also affect access to information technology–younger, well-paid people stand a greater chance of being on the right side of the digital divide.

Poor literacy also has a considerable impact on health. The risks involved in wrongly deciphering a medical prescription or the instructions for using heavy machinery are obvious. And the indirect effects are even greater, though harder to measure. There is a link between poor literacy and poverty, dangerous jobs, the inability to defend oneself in a dispute, stress, and lifestyle factors that are detrimental to health such as smoking or lack of exercise. In a society where literacy is not an option but a must, it is easy to imagine the stress felt by someone who has difficulty reading a sentence.

At a broader economic level, better literacy skills are said to contribute to higher productivity and lower demands on health systems–both valuable outcomes at a time when many governments are facing widespread problems of ageing and vocational retraining.

By and large, all of these aspects are interlinked and only a comprehensive approach to the problem can lead to noticeable progress. There are some promising avenues, such as family literacy programmes from the US and elsewhere, which bring together parents and children in a joint effort to learn–the children are often more literate than the adults programmes from the US and elsewhere, which bring together parents and children in a joint effort to learn–in families with problem backgrounds, the children are often more literate than the adults. These initiatives are particularly interesting in that they can break cycles that may have lasted several generations. Other attempts to help people with reading difficulties, such as information and guidance services, are also of great benefit. And while some may find it hard to break through the technology barrier, computer literacy is also becoming a must for acquiring basic reading skills. In the end, all of this depends on the need for policymakers to help broaden access to adult learning.

Literacy underpins the ability to learn and adapt in this new technological era. Giving everyone the opportunity of acquiring these skills will increasingly mean mastering the written word.


Pont Béatriz and Patrick Werquin (2000), “Literacy in a thousand words”, in OECD Observer No 223, pp 49-50, October, Paris.

OECD (2003), Beyond Rhetoric: Adult Learning Policies and Practices, Paris.

OECD (2005), Promoting Adult Learning, Paris.

©OECD Observer No 251, September 2005

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