The Progress of Nations: The Industrial World

Sweden heads new literacy league

A new survey of adult literacy levels in seven countries shows Sweden well out in front of other industrialized nations. Over 40% of Swedes aged 16 to 25 are performing at the highest levels of practical literacy, as opposed to only 23% in Germany and 18% in the United States.

The International Adult Literacy Survey, conducted in late 1994, tested nearly 21,000 people in seven nations for their skills in understanding and using prose and numbers, and in 'document' literacy - the ability to deal with the wide array of documents needed for everyday life in the industrialized world, such as tables, schedules, job applications, graphics, charts, and maps.

The tests, each lasting 45 minutes and involving more than 30 tasks of gradually increasing complexity, were specifically designed to measure and compare the literacy skills of people from different countries and cultures. Respondents were graded on a scale from 1 to 5.

The chart above shows the levels of document literacy reached by young people in the seven countries surveyed so far.* Six of these nations are among the richest in the world, with per capita GNPs at or beyond the $20,000 mark. The notable exception is Poland, where average income is little more than a tenth of that figure.

Discounting Poland, the United States has the highest proportion of young people performing poorly in document literacy (level 1) and the smallest proportion performing well (levels 4 and 5).

In all the countries surveyed, there was a strong link between higher literacy levels and higher wages.

Across the industrialized world, employment is falling in low-skill, low-technology, low-paid jobs. Being able to absorb and use new information, adopt new skills and adapt to new methods is becoming more and more essential. The first international survey of literacy levels is therefore an indicator of how industrialized nations compare in preparing their young people for the future.

* Because of a sampling anomaly in the US data for the international survey, the chart uses the findings of the latest national survey in the US.

*German-speaking Swiss. Data for French-speaking Swiss show comparable rates at all levels except level 1, where the rate is slightly higher (nearly 9%).

**Data for young people aged 16 to 24 from the national survey conducted in 1991-1992. Source: National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education, Adult Literacy in America: A first look at the Results o the National Adult Literacy survey, Gordon Press, 1994.

SOURCE Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada, Literacy, Economy and Society: Results of the First International Adult Literacy Survey, 1995.

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