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Thursday, 15 June, 2000, 18:53 GMT 19:53 UK
Western literacy levels 'too low'
TV and Books
Does TV's popularity come at the expense of reading?
By BBC News Online's Tom Housden

Industrialised countries are failing to give their citizens an education that meets the needs of an advanced society, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has suggested.



Britain has the fourth highest level of unemployment amongst people with the lowest levels of basic reading skills.

OECD survey
The OECD reached this conclusion on the basis of a report that looked at the reading and television-watching habits of its member countries.

The report found a wide variation in literacy levels even among technologically advanced countries, with the United Kingdom ranking in the lower half of the 20-nation survey.

OECD director for education John Martin said that in all the countries surveyed, too many adults lack the skills needed for "coping with the demands of everyday life and work in a complex, advanced society".

This implies that "all countries have a literacy problem that should be tackled as a matter of urgency," Mr Martin said.

The OECD compiled a "rogues' gallery" of 14 countries where "at least 15% of adults have literacy levels at only the most rudimentary level".

Even in Sweden, which emerged the best scorer with only 8% of adults deficient in literacy skills, there was "a severe literary deficiency in everyday life and work".

New Zealand leads

New Zealand topped the poll of frequent readers, with over 70% of those questioned saying they read at least one book per month.

Ireland, Germany and Australia also scored top 10 finishes with large numbers of readers.


bookshop
The survey looked at reading levels worldwide
When it came to TV-watching habits, the survey revelated that in one area at least, Britain still comes top, with nearly 60% of the population settling down to more than two hours a day.

Surprisingly, the home of the original "couch potatoes", the United States, finished well down the TV-watching poll in 13th place.

Some experts suggest that the links between low reading levels and high doses of TV are clear cut, suggesting that if a person is watching TV they will have little time for anything else.

If so, perhaps much of New Zealand's reading took place in front of the box, as the country also came second in the TV-viewing survey.

The Czech republic, which has an equally high number of readers, also came fourth in the TV viewing chart.

However, both books and TV seem to be a turn-off in Belgium, where low reading is matched by low viewing.

Geographically, Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans scored highly in the bookworm stakes, as did Australia and multi-lingual Switzerland.

Comprehensive study

The study has been called the most comprehensive survey of world literacy and is the result of a 10-year exhaustive survey.

It defined lliteracy as "whether a person is able to understand and employ printed information in daily life at home, at work and in the community".

It looked at different forms of literacy worldwide and settled on three criteria: the ability to cope with prose, documents and quality.

Britain did poorly in the area of "quantitative literacy "and showed only moderate improvements in the other areas.

Most disturbingly it reveals that Britain has the fourth highest level of unemployment amongst people with the lowest levels of basic reading skills.

However, the rest of the world did not escape criticism for poor levels of literacy.

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03 Apr 00 | Education
Boost for basic skills
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