Literacy for life

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Literacy proficiency among 16-65 year-olds:
Percentage of adults at each proficiency level in literacy

As jobs increasingly involve analysing and communicating information, individuals with poor literacy skills are more likely to find themselves at risk. Poor proficiency in these skills limits adults’ access to many basic services, to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs, and to the possibility of participating in further education and training, which is crucial for developing and maintaining skills over the working life and beyond.

On this Leaders for Literacy Day, I want to share some findings from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills. The survey finds, for example, that the median hourly wage of workers scoring at the highest levels in literacy (Level 4 or 5 in the survey) – those who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments in written texts – is more than 60% higher than for workers scoring at Level 1 or below – those who can, at best, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information that is identical to the information given in the question or directive or to understand basic vocabulary. In addition, people with poor literacy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed.

But the impact of literacy proficiency goes far beyond earnings and employment. In all countries that participated in the 2012 survey, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities. In most countries, they are also less likely to trust others. For example, on average across countries, individuals who perform at Level 1 in literacy are twice as likely to report low levels of trust as individuals who score at Level 4 or 5, even after accounting for their education and social background. Without trust in governments, public institutions and well-regulated markets, public support for ambitious and innovative policies is difficult to mobilise, particularly where short-term sacrifices are involved and where long-term benefits are not immediately evident.

While the evidence on the benefits of high proficiency in literacy is clear, the path towards ensuring that every individual attains at least a basic level of literacy is less so. The latest OECD PISA results show that, across OECD countries, a worrying large proportion of 15-year-old students – 18% — have not yet attained the baseline level of proficiency as measured by PISA, meaning that they have not yet acquired the reading skills that will enable them to participate fully and productively in society.

What can we do to promote better literacy skills for all

•    Provide high-quality initial education and lifelong learning opportunities.

The impressive progress that some countries, such as Korea, have made in improving the skills of their population over successive generations shows what can be achieved. These countries have established systems that combine high-quality initial education with opportunities and incentives for the entire population to continue to develop proficiency in reading and numeracy skills, whether outside work or at the workplace, after initial education and training are completed

•    Make sure all children have a strong start in education.

PISA results show that investing in high-quality early childhood education and initial schooling, particularly for children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, can help to ensure that all children start strong and become effective learners.

•    Allow workers to adapt their learning to their lives

Programmes to enhance adult literacy need to be relevant to users and flexible enough, both in content and in how they are delivered (part-time, flexible hours, convenient location), to adapt to adults’ needs. Distance learning and open educational resources also allow users to adapt their learning to their lives

•    Identify those most at risk of poor literacy proficiency.

The most disadvantaged adults need to be not only offered, but also encouraged, to improve their proficiency. This means identifying low-skilled adults who require support, particularly foreign-language immigrants, older adults and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and providing them with learning opportunities tailored to their needs. This is likely to require innovative approaches and significant community engagement.

•    Show how adults can benefit from better skills.

More adults will be tempted to invest in education and training if the benefits of improving their skills are made apparent to them. For example, governments can provide better information about the economic benefits, including wages net of taxes, employment and productivity, and non-economic benefits, including self-esteem and increased social interaction, of adult learning.

•    Provide easy-to-find information about adult education activities.

Less-educated individuals tend to be less aware of education and training opportunities, and may find the available information confusing. A combination of easily searchable, up-to-date online information and personal guidance and counselling services to help individuals define their own training needs and identify the appropriate programmes has often made a real difference.

Results from the Survey of Adult Skills underscore the need to move from a reliance on initial education towards fostering lifelong learning. Seeing literacy as a tool to be honed over an individual’s lifetime will also help countries to better balance the allocation of resources to maximise both economic and social outcomes.

Follow the digital dialogue: How can WE better advance literacy for all and make this the #AgeOfLiteracy?

Leaders for Literacy Day
Survey of Adult Skills
PISA 2012 Key Findings
PISA in Focus No. 1: Does participation in pre-primary education translate into better learning outcomes at school?
PISA in Focus No. 40: Does pre-primary education reach those who need it most?
Chart Source: © OECD Skilled for Life: Key Findings from the Survey of Adult Skills

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