An overdose of illiteracy

In an ever more complex world, literate adults are crucial to economic performance and social cohesion
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Can you read the label on an aspirin bottle, and understand that you should not take the medicine for longer than a week? Good, you are at the minimum level of adult literacy. Now try the weather report published in this paper and work out the difference in the temperature yesterday between Tokyo and Hong Kong. If you can manage that, you are at least at grade two - but sadly between 10 and 20 per cent of the population of a typical developed country could not. Now think of a Which? report, say the double-page spread this month ranking different camcorders. Only 10 to 20 per cent of the people in a typical developed country would understand it well enough to answer complicated questions on it correctly.

In our daily lives we face a string of ever more complicated reading, writing and arithmetical tasks. Labels on food carry more information; consumer goods have increasingly complicated manuals; and as for a credit- card application form, you need a degree in economics and consumer law - and you would still miss something.

Part of the problem is that many instructions are "written" by people who cannot write. But even allowing for this, the fact remains that in the workplace the demands for literacy are rising, so that many people find themselves excluded from the middle and upper levels of their organisations.

The problem is widely recognised: witness, for example, this week's statement on education from the Labour Party, Excellence for All. Adult literacy is crucial not only to economic performance, but also to social cohesion; for the more complicated society becomes, the greater the proportion of people who will be marginalised.

Yet until today there was no studycomparing adult literacy in different developed nations. There were figures on academic credentials: numbers of people getting diplomas or degrees. And there were crude measures of performance of schoolchildren: how they performed in standard maths tests, for example. But there was nothing on how well adults could read the things they needed to in their daily lives.

Now there is. A new study, Literacy, Economy and Society, was yesterday published by the OECD in Paris. It looks at seven countries - the US, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and Poland - ranking adult literacy on a common basis. No, Britain did not take part, though we will in the future, and a pilot study is showing interesting results. And France was not included either. More about that in a moment. First, how did the study work?

The idea was not to set an exam, but to look at the extent to which people could correctly interpret the various documents they encounter from day to day. The organisers took a sample of 2,000 to 3,000 in each country and questioned them about the same sort of document, in their own language, and taken from their own culture.

The questions were graded by difficulty, one to five: the one on the aspirin label ranked as one, the one on a newspaper weather map as two, and a complicated question on the consumer report would be four or five.

The study looked at three sorts of literacy. One was prose: just words, like the aspirin label. A second was document literacy, where there were words and figures - an airline timetable or a Which? report. The third was quantitative literacy, where in addition to reading, the reader had to make a simple calculation, such as working out the difference in temperature in two cities on the weather map.

So who did best?

The clear overall winner was Sweden, with both the largest proportion of people in the top grades and the smallest in the lowest. But even in Sweden about a third of the population would not be able to fill out a simple stationery requisition form. Aside from poor Poland, which came bottom on just about every measure, the worst results at the lower end of the scale came from the US. About 20 per cent of its adult populationcould just about manage an aspirin bottle label but not much more.

However, at the top end Americans (and Canadians) did very well, almost as well as the Swedes, and better than the Germans, Swiss or Dutch.

How might we fare? Well, there are only pilot studies so far and the results are not out yet. Common sense suggests that we will be somewhere between North America and Sweden: in the middle of the European pack. But one point which has emerged is that Britons seem to take a lot of care in answering the questions, taking more time over them than any other nationality. Since a lot of the questions need a bit of care, we may come out rather better than average.

This is in contrast to the French, who did take part in the main study until quite a late stage. But it seems that the French dashed off the answers with Gallic flair and self-confidence - only to get them wrong.

Cynics believe that the reason the French withdrew from the study was because they seemed to be doing so badly. (Before anyone crows at French discomfort, they should be aware that our own resistance to joining may have been because we were worried that Britain would not show up too well.)

But this really ought not to be about national league tables, fascinating though they may be. There are much bigger issues here.

First, we put a great deal of energy into consumer labelling on food products, supposedly to enable consumers to know how much fat/fibre/chemicals they contain. But if two-thirds of the population cannot understand these, what is the point? (Working out the percentage of calories in a Big Mac hamburger that came from fat was one of the most difficult tasks on the whole scale.)

Second, there are clearly things that can be done to improve adult literacy. If people read a lot, or write letters, they become better at it. By contrast, those who watch the most television in every single country are the worst readers. So anything that encourages people to read more will help them to read better. If you have reached this point in this article, take a bow.

Third, and most important, is the question of whether there should be a new qualification for adult literacy. It is not the same as educational achievement. Obviously there is a relationship between the two, but there were plenty of people with limited educational achievements who did very well in the tests and a few people with wonderful degrees who did very badly.

Most employers need people who can read and write well, and can add up. They are less interested in whether 10 years earlier they achieved three A's at A-level and an Upper Second in Classical Civilisation. So we have a string of qualifications that are not relevant to future life and not one single one that is. This must be nuts.