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Statistical Analysis Report:

Adult Literacy in OECD Countries: Technical Report on the First International Adult Literacy Survey

October 1997

(NCES 98-053) Ordering information


In recent years, adult literacy has come to be seen as crucial to the economic performance of industrialized nations. Literacy is no longer defined merely in terms of a basic threshold of reading ability which everyone growing up in developed countries is expected to attain. Rather, literacy is now equated with an individual’s ability to use written information to function in society. Unlike their predecessors, adults today need a higher level of literacy to function well, because society has become more complex and low-skill jobs are disappearing. Inadequate levels of literacy in a broad section of the population may therefore have serious implications, even threatening a nation’s economic strength and social cohesion.

Because of these high stakes, governments have a growing interest in understanding the level and distribution of literacy within their adult populations, and in learning what can be done to improve literacy. Accordingly, in recent years, many governments have tried for the first time to measure adult literacy directly. Pioneering studies (Kirsch and Jungeblut 1986; Kirsch and Mosenthal 1990; Statistics Canada 1991; Kirsch, Jungeblut, and Campbell 1992; Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, and Kolstad 1993) published in North America in the early 1990s revealed that significant percentages of adults lacked the literacy skills they were likely to need in everyday life. In 1992, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that low literacy levels were a serious threat to economic performance and social cohesion (OECD 1992). Yet a lack of comparable international data prevented a broader inquiry into literacy problems and consequent policy lessons across industrialized countries.

The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) was undertaken by nine governments and three intergovernmental organizations in a collaborative effort to fill this need for information. In this survey, large samples of adults (ranging from 1,500 to 8,000 per country) in Europe and North America were given the same broad test of their literacy skills during the autumn of 1994. The results provide the most detailed portrait ever created on the condition of adult literacy and its relationship with an array of background and demographic characteristics. The study’s findings were summarized in a report published in December 1995, entitled Literacy, Economy and Society: Results of the first International Adult Literacy Survey.

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