BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Education
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Hot Topics 
UK Systems 
League Tables 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Thursday, 5 July, 2001, 23:11 GMT 00:11 UK
Study casts doubt on adult illiteracy
Could so many really have been struggling?
A re-analysis of a major international study which said adults in the UK had disturbingly low literacy levels has called into question the reliability of the findings.

The new research concludes that the International Adult Literacy Survey "should be treated with caution at national level and more so at an international level."

The original study prompted widely publicised official reports in the UK which spoke of "staggering" and "appalling" levels of adult illiteracy and led to new government strategies to tackle the problem.

But the re-analysis argues that, far from 48% of British people having low literacy, a different definition might put the level at 3%.

In France the gap is even wider - from 65% down to 5%.

Problems highlighted

The original survey, published in 1997, was a collaboration between France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden, the US, Canada, Poland and Switzerland in the first round.

The UK and Flemish Belgium joined later, with Australia and New Zealand.

The new work has been carried out by London University's Institute of Education and France's top demographic research body, the Institut National d'Etudes Démographiques in Paris.

Their aim was not to rubbish what had gone before but to draw lessons for future international comparisons, which they say do have a useful role.

Their report points to a number of problems in the way the original data were collected and analysed.

One is that tasks people were set in different countries were not equivalent. Another is that things were literally lost in translation.


For example, a question about "disposable nappies" in the British version repeated those words in the phrase containing the correct answer.

Similarly in the Anglo-Canadian questionnaire the term "disposable diapers" was repeated.

But in France it changed from "couches jetables" to "changes complets".

"The respondent is drawn in English more easily towards the phrase containing this term and therefore to the correct answer, whereas in French the reader has to understand that these terms are equivalent before being able to answer," says the report.

"The resultant bias considerably increases the difficulty of the questions in French."

'More complex'

Another issue that could have distorted the original findings has to do with the motivation of those who took part, answering long questionnaires in their own homes.

The way in which unanswered questions were treated could also have caused problems, the report says.

And there is technical analysis of the interpretations of the results.

Professor Harvey Goldstein of the Institute of Education said: "The problem is that a particular literacy level can be achieved by correctly answering harder items and getting easier items wrong, as well as by just getting items of similar difficulty right.

"In other words, there is no simple description of how well people can read - it is more complex than that."

National strategy

These are not the first criticisms that have been made of the study which suggested that huge numbers of people had literacy and numeracy skills so low they had trouble with such everyday tasks as reading a note or understanding a payslip.

But they do further question the validity of its findings, which have also fed into Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports - and whether there was a need for UK ministers to have allocated millions of pounds to tackling the "problem".

"Problems with international comparisons have been recognized for some time, and we have been able to pinpoint specifically how some of these arise," said Prof Goldstein.

"This is not to say that international comparisons are pointless, but their interpretations require care and the difficulties need to be well understood by those who use them."

The reappraisal was carried out under the auspices of the Office for National Statistics and funded by the European Commission.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

15 Jun 00 | Europe
Western literacy levels 'too low'
22 May 00 | Education
Basic skills for adult learners
03 Apr 00 | Education
Boost for basic skills
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Education stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Education stories