The Government-backed study, published yesterday, reveals that more British adults are struggling at the lowest literacy level than their counterparts in any other developed country surveyed - except Poland.
Older people, the unemployed and women are among the groups most likely to experience serious difficulties with reading.
The bleak findings were seized on by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, as vindication of the Government's literacy strategy, emphasising the three Rs in schools, and employment schemes for young people. However, basic skills experts stressed the need also to help older adults, who did particularly poorly in the tests.
The study, published by the Office for National Statistics, is based on a random sample of 3,800 British people aged between 16 and 65.
It found that 22 per cent - equivalent to around 8.4 million in the population as a whole - lacked the ability to compare and contrast two written pieces of information or work out simple sums, such as the amount saved on a product discounted in a sale.
A further 30 per cent of those who took the tests performed only at literacy Level Two. The figures mean that more than half the British population has literacy skills below Level Three - the standard generally agreed as the minimum necessary to cope with the demands of modern life.
The study, to include over 20 countries by the end of1998, defines literacy as "using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential."
Those taking part carried out 45 tasks based on material from daily life such as recipes and tables of returns on investments.
The assessments measured three types of literacy: prose literacy - the ability to understand newspapers and passages of fiction; document literacy - the ability to use timetables, graphs, charts and forms; and quantitative literacy - the ability to solve maths problems by picking out numbers found in texts.
The findings show a distinct polarisation among the British population, with a relatively high proportion with either the lowest or highest skill levels.
The trend was similar in Canada and the United States - the two other English-speaking countries in the study.
On all three literacy scales, a higher proportion of people aged 45 and over fell into the lowest literacy category than among younger age groups - flying in the face of common claims of declining basic skills standards.
The survey also confirmed past findings that literacy skills are poorer among those with lower levels of education and among people who are out of work or in lower-skilled occupations.
However, it revealed that, even among those at the lowest literacy level, the majority questioned considered their skills to be adequate for daily life.
Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Unit, one of the bodies sponsoring the survey, said it showed the problem was worse than had been thought. He called for a campaign to improve adult literacy, saying: "I think the Government's priorities are right, and it is important to get basic skills right first time, but you can't afford to neglect parents and grandparents who are going to have a major impact on the skills of their children."
Welcoming the survey, Mr Blunkett said: "Sound literacy and numeracy skills provide the bedrock for all subsequent learning."
The Government has appointed an advisory group on adult learning, and we will publish a policy paper on lifelong learning before the end of the year.Reuse content