International Adult Literacy Survey

Who Is Ready for the Information Age?

The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) was a 22-country study conducted between 1994 and 1998. It was was the first multi-country and multi-language assessment of adult literacy. In every country, nationally representative samples of adults aged between 16-65 were interviewed and tested at home.

An industrial worker in Allentown, PA. Are workers in the U.S. ready for the Information Age?
Photo: Air Products and Chemicals, Inc.

The main purpose of the survey was to find out how well adults use information to function in society. Another aim was to investigate the factors that influence literacy proficiency and to compare these among countries. The survey was sponsored by Statistics Canada and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which grew out of the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II.

The Methods: Functional Literacy Standards

To make comparisons, the study used the same type of iteracy tests in all countries as was used in the 1985 U.S. Young Adult Literacy Survey and the 1992 U.S. National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS).

Like the earlier surveys, IALS measured proficiency on three scales (prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy). It used the Literacy Proficiency Scale (from 0 to 500) that was developed by the the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also set these five levels of literacy:

  1. People with very poor skills.
  2. People who can deal only with simple material.
  3. Roughly the skill level required for successful secondary school completion and college entry.
  4. and 5. People who demonstrate command of "higher-order information processing skills.

The following table gives the estimated U.S. grade equivalents of each of those five levels.

Literacy Levels
ETS Proficiency Scores U.S. Grade Levels
1  Rudimentary 150–299 1–2
2  Basic 200–249 3–6
3  Intermediate 250–299 7–11
4  Adept 300–349 12–15
5  Advanced 350–500 16+
Table 1. NAEP literacy levels, ETS proficiency scores, and
the estimated U.S. reading-grade-level equivalents.

For highlights of the IALS, see: International Adult Literacy Survey http://www.nifl.gov/nifl/facts/IALS.html

For the final, 205-page report in pdf format, see Literacy in the Information Age

Results: Sweden Takes All Honors

The following chart gives a snapshot that compares the literacy of each of the countries in the study.

Click for a larger display.
IALS cumulative distribution of literacy levels.

Just a brief look at the above chart shows that Sweden has the best readers in the study. Followed by Finland, Canada, and the U.S., Sweden has the highest percentage of the readers in the top two levels (4 and 5). Sweden also has the lowest rate (7.5%) of those in Level 1.

The following table shows the percentages of the population in each reading level in Sweden and six English-speaking countries.

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Levels 4 & 5
Sweden 7.5 20.3 39.7 32.4
Canada 16.6 25.6 35.1 22.7
U.S. 20.7 25.9 32.4 21.1
New Zealand 18.4 27.3 35 19.2
Australia 17 27.1 36.9 18.9
U.K. 21.8 30.3 31.3 16.6
Ireland 22.6 29.8 34.1 13.5
Table 2. Percentages of population in each NAEP literacy
level in seven selected countries.

The Nokia headquarters in Espoo, Finland. With its high rates of literacy, Finland is the most advanced information society in the world, with one of the highest rates of Internet connections. Nokia is the world's number-one producer of cell phones. Over 87 percent of the people own cell phones, the highest rate in the world.

U.S. Rankings

The study reveals the extent to which the U.S. falls behind other developed countries:

A number of national and state organizations in the U.S., including the National Governor's Association, have identified Level 3 proficiency as a minimum standard for success in today's labor market. Findings from the IALS assessment indicate that only half of the U.S. adult population 16-65 years of age reached Level 3.

For the results of the IALS in Canada, go to:
Reading the Future: A Portrait of Literacy in Canada

Literacy and Watching TV

The IALS study finds clear links between excessive TV viewing and poor literacy: "Analysis of the data has shown that literacy skills are positively related to people's daily reading practices and negatively related to the amount of television they watch."

The British are more addicted to television than any other country in the developed world but lag behind in advanced reading. Britain has the fourth highest level of unemployment among people with the poorest modern literacy skills—those unable to understand dosage instructions on a packet of medicine. Britain easily heads the list for people who watch television for more than two hours a day. Six people in 10 do this, 2% more than the next most TV-addicted country, New Zealand.

Britain's worst showing was in quantitative literacy, coming 16th out of 22. The countries which did worse were Hungary, Ireland, Slovenia, Poland, Portugal, and Chile. Britain's second worst performance was 15th out of 22 in document literacy. It came 13th in prose literacy.

Literacy Skills and the Labor Market

Among the most prominent findings of the study was the clear connection between literacy skills and one's readiness for the information age. Across all countries, greater reading skills are related to more knowledge jobs.

Better reading skills increases one's chances of having a white-collar, high-skilled position. They also reduce the chances of being out of a job, while low reading skills increase the chances of long-term unemployment.

High literacy is also related with better health, longer lives, higher income, and healhier habits and lifestyles. There is a further link between high literacy and increased participation in public and civic life by both men and women.

Leaving Adults Behind

The average reading level of adults in all countries is level 3 (in U.S. terms, somewhere between the 7th and 11th grades). In the U.S., nearly a third of adult readers are in Level 3. This average, however, does not show us how the results are distributed above and below the mean.

Of more significance than the average is the literacy gap, the spread between the best and worst readers in the country.

Only six of the best performing countries have Level 1 rates below 15 percent: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Netherlands and Sweden. Sweden has only 7.5 percent in Level 1. The study also shows that these same countries have the highest levels of adult education and on-the-job training. The U.S. comes in 10th in those categoies.

The English-speaking countries, with some of the best schools, have the highest literacy spread, with these rates of readers in Level 1 prose skills:

Illiteracy Ignored

The really bad news is what the IALS leaves out—those who could not take the test or failed to pass the test for Level 1.

According to those who have conducted surveys in the U.S., the rate of those who are unable to take the test is five percent. That may not seem much, but the absolute number of illiterate adults in the U.S. is a disturbing 14,680,000.

If we use 2005 data from UNESCO, the United States is much like many Third World countries in terms of the absolute numbers of adult illiterates. For comparison, here are some estimated numbers of illiterate adults in developing countries, and the percentage of the adult population that is illiterate:

While the United States has the lowest rates of adult illiterates among these nations, there are 42% more adult illiterates in the United States than in Mexico, its neighbor to the south. There are more illiterate adults in the United States than in either South Africa or Tanzania.

Countries that have lower illiteracy rates than the U.S. include:

For a commentary on illiteracy in the U.S., go to:
Leaving Adults Behind:http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050502/steinberg

Tallinn, Estonia. Estonia has a literacy rate of almost 100 percent and is already a leader in the Information Age. In the number of Internet connections per capita, it leads the EU and ranks ahead of Finland, the UK, Germany, Belgium, and France. The Estonian Government conducts its cabinet meetings in paperless sessions using a Web-based system. This year, 2005, Estonians will vote on the Web.

The Importance of Life-Long Learning

The authors of the IALS emphasize that this is a survey of adults, not of schools. All studies indicate that the schools in the U.S. have been gradually improving their reading scores. What this study shows us is what happens after adults leave school. It shows us the negative effects of TV and the positive effects of adult education and on-the-job training.

The IALS report emphasizes the need for lifelong learning:

Literacy skills are maintained and strengthened through regular use. While schooling provides an essential foundation, the evidence suggests that only through informal learning and the active use of literacy skills in daily activities—both at home and at work—will higher levels of proficiency be attained. The creation of literacy-rich environments, in the workplace and more generally, can have lasting, intergenerational effects.

The development of reading skills takes a long time, at least 23 years. The high levels of literacy in Baltic countries like Estonia may indicate stronger cultural support of life-long learning needed to develop those skills. The skills we learn in school may not be nearly as important as how we use them later on.

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Cicero on the Rhetoric of Plain Style

"Nothing is more difficult"

Marcus Tullius Cicero
(106-42 B.C.)

ACCORDING to Rome's most famous senator, the plain style is best for instruction. A more elaborate style is proper for entertainment, and the most elegant style for use in formal speeches by attorneys and senators.

Cicero writes that the plain style is not easy. While it may seem close to everyday speech, achieving the effect in formal discourse is a high and difficult art: "plainness of style seems easy to imitate at first thought, but when attempted, nothing is more difficult."

Plainness does not mean the absence of all ornaments, only the more obvious ones. Cicero recognizes what Aristotle had long before pointed out, that a well-turned metaphor or simile can help us see a relation we had not recognized. In fact, he makes abundant use of metaphor and simile to teach us what the plain style is all about:

... although it is not full-blooded, it should nevertheless have some of the sap of life so that, though it lack great strength, it may be, so to speak, in sound health.... Just as some women are said to be handsomer when unadorned... so this plain style gives pleasure when unembellished.... All noticeable pearls, as it were, will be excluded. Not even curling irons will be used. All cosmetics, artificial white and red, will be rejected. Only elegance and neatness will remain. (The Orator, xxiii, 76-79)

Writers today practice what Cicero taught so long ago: that the plain style must not attract attention to itself. Even so, plain style must be winning and appeal to the interest of the reader. Without that appeal, there will be no reading.

Download It Now—Free!
The Principles of Readability
By William H. DuBay

A brief introduction to the research on the readability formulas.
70 pages, bibliography

"Thanks for the report on readability. It is really a very impressive work. You have pulled together a lot of information that ranges over a long period of time. A genuine work of classic scholarship—of which there is way too little that comes my way."
—Thomas Sticht, International Consultant on Adult Literacy

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