NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Literacy Levels Low In Developed Countries

December 11, 1997

A new survey of the United States and 11 other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that literacy levels are low in these developed industrial nations.

The survey concluded that between one quarter and three quarters of adults ages 16 to 65 in all these countries have only minimum skills for coping with the complex demands of modern life and work. The survey report says a person at minimum skill level should at least be able to complete a job application, read a bus schedule and balance a checkbook.

Swedish adults significantly outperformed peers in other countries, while those in Poland finished last.

  • American and Canadian adults ranked about midway among the nations in reading and math.
  • The Netherlands ranked second in reading and understanding document information, but third in math.
  • Germans placed second in math, fourth in understanding documents and eighth in reading.

Researchers also say that unlike other skills that last a lifetime, literacy decreases with lack of use or increases with activity. Thus those adults in occupations that put a premium on high literary have better skills than those with similar education who are in workplaces where literacy is less important.

Source: Tamara Henry, "Literacy Skills Require Upkeep," USA Today, December 11, 1997.


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