Learning a Living: Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey

Patrick Werquin Patrick Werquin

Learning a Living: Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey

Questions to Dr. Patrick Werquin – Principal Administrator, OECD, Directorate for Education by Ellen Stavlund, NVL coordinator, Norway and Tor Erik Skaar, NVR reporter, Norway.

This report presents data drawn from surveys in Bermuda, Canada, Italy, the Mexican State of Nuevo León, Norway, Switzerland and the United States. The surveys measured adult skills in four domains: prose literacy (understanding continuous text such as that found in books and newspaper articles); document literacy (understanding graphs, charts and other written information of a discontinuous nature); numeracy, including mathematical concepts; and problem-solving or analytical reasoning.
In the countries surveyed, Norway obtained the best results in three areas and Switzerland in one (numeracy). Switzerland came second in problem-solving, while Bermuda came second in prose comprehension and Canada came second in document comprehension. In all seven participating countries, the survey showed that people who use computers consistently scored higher on average on the prose literacy scale than those who don’t (www.oecd.org).

-The countries taking part in the survey are not very numerous and they are also quite different. Do you think the results say something about the situation for all OECD member countries?
-The countries taking part in the survey not only are quite representative of OECD countries, we have small and large countries; we have European and non European countries. We also have countries with different educational systems and different approaches to lifelong learning. (Canada, Italy, Mexico (Nuevo Léon), Norway, Switzerland and the United States of America as well as Bermuda).
But, in addition, these countries are the ones involved in the first round of the Adult Literacy and Life skills survey. There will be a second round that will broaden even more the scope of the study. Countries such as Australia, Korea, New Zealand and many more non-OECD countries are joining the survey; some are already collecting data.
These are important surveys and it is sometimes necessary that they be organised over several years. For instance, the language needs to be adapted, not only translated but also adapted and this can take time.
Finally, the value of this type of survey somewhat comes from the league tables it provides and the description of each country situation it provides; but it mainly come from the general evidence it allows to establish. Many of the results you will find in Learning a Living are not bound to a particular country but correspond to a truth that is going beyond each country system in the global world we are living in.

-How do you imagine or suggest that ALL could be used to improve the situation in the participating countries as in other countries?
-Amazingly enough, we provide league tables to the readers and they are amply used in the press and at the political level but the real added value of these survey for policy makers is elsewhere. These surveys are useful to know the skills that are available in a country, what are the characteristics of the people who have them (educational attainment, social background etc.) and therefore how countries could give these skills to people who do not have them. Policy action is the keyword underpinning these OECD activities.
To cut a long story short, these surveys are very useful to identify the target groups for policy making. Illiterate people do not say they are illiterate and, even more, often, if not always, deny it. So you need to know what are the “observable” characteristics that best describe poorly literate people before you can set adequate programmes in motion and target the people really in need of adult basic education.

-Do you think a comparison in itself is useful?
-You always learn from what the other countries are doing. Not all the programmes or laws are necessarily portable (or transferable) – because they are issues, for instance, in terms of political context and social consensus – but they always allow for a better grasp of the issues at stake.
And again, some of the issues around low level of literacy are rather international. The numbers vary and the solutions are somewhat different but countries are faced with the same questions.
Let me add that it is the role – and the added value of the OECD – to provide an international comparative approach to its member countries and beyond.

-Different settings demand different levels of literacy. While reading short messages in simple language may be enough for a person to be functionally literate in one setting, it will by far be enough in another setting. Is there such a thing as a universal definition of the word “literacy” used in the survey?
-This is the core of the study. We are not saying it is always the case that literacy is the most important skill – brilliant past civilisations did not have a written language and, on a deserted island, it is more important to be able to cut a coconut without any tool rather than be able to read – but we are saying that the world we live in requires a good command of basic literacy skills.
If you take the situation 10 or 15 years ago: the telephone was the main instrument and you could order, book or even apply for a job by telephone. Having a low level of literacy was not visible in the first place. Nowadays, some airline companies charge you more when you book by telephone instead of booking by internet. Sending an email has become quite usual to apply for a job and/or get appropriate information about a job. Even withdrawing cash demands reading skills.
Again, I would agree that different settings may require different skills. Nevertheless, if you want to benefit from what the society we live in has to offer, you have to have a good command of the written language of the country you live in. Remember also, just by the way, that the main issue is about being able to function in the country where you live: some foreign people, highly literate in their own language, may not master the local language and this is an issue policy makers have to be aware of regarding size and depth of the problems.

-From this survey we learned that about one third of the population in Norway do not have sufficient skills to function well enough. Do you think the survey is thorough and accurate enough to describe the real situation at the grass root level?
-Again, this tool is intended for policy makers and for them to reduce the number of poorly literate people. What matters is therefore the consistency of the measurement over time. When you start a diet, your goal is to lose weight. What matters is therefore to always use the same scale to check the progress you are making on your weight, not your actual weight; or not primarily.
Again, only the press is using, and only using, the league tables and the rough number like the one about the one third of the Norwegian population. We go a lot deeper in the analysis. Having said that, there is some sort of consistency in the numbers published here and there about illiteracy rate; I don’t think this one third number is misrepresenting the reality. And this is another response to your question: do not forget that we are not measuring an ability to decipher or to decode a language. We are assessing people’s ability to make appropriate decisions according to what they read. Think about it, think about the people around you: it is quite easy to spot people who clearly can read, whether they fully understand what they are reading and can make good decision is another question…
In addition, let me also remind you that Norway has been on the top of the literacy ranking – together with Sweden and some other countries – for many years now. So think about the other countries where this proportion is a lot higher!!! They are the ones who really need to work on adult literacy issues.
All in all, I think these surveys are doing a good job in raising awareness. The problem of low literacy among the adult population was denied for too long and it is only recently that countries are addressing the issue. I don’t think the discussion is really about the one third or whatever other fraction, the problem is that low literacy is not acceptable in countries like OECD countries these days.

-Obviously, different people will have different perceptions and experiences concerning what it means to function “well enough”. What does it mean to function well enough in your opinion?
-Personally, as I said above, I don’t really use this term. I would rather say that literacy skills are necessary to fully benefit from what the society has to offer; it’s a more positive approach. And the society has a lot to offer but a lot comes in writing or requires writing skills. You can probably function anyway – people are smart and they always find a way around, whether it’s thanks to their family or friends or by adapting their behaviour one way or another – but you don’t benefit from the major recent breakthroughs in terms of individual or societal development.
And you know, these issues are likely to become even more important because skills like ICT skills do require reading literacy skills and ICT skills are making a clear difference in terms of labour market, wage, health, well being, economic growth, competitiveness etc. It is just the beginning and countries cannot afford to leave out a fraction of the population, whatever its size.

-It may be crucial for an individual to reach an advanced level of literacy, at the same time as this may be an even more important goal for the societies. In any case it varies to some degree from individual to individual and from society to society what level of literacy is “needed”. In general, what would you say would be the needed minimum level of literacy?
-The psychometrists define the minimum level to “function” properly in – remember I would rather benefit from – our societies as level 3. This comes from complex psychometrics analysis and it is confirmed by basic statistical analysis. The latter clearly show that literacy levels 1 and 2 are more likely to be associated with low wage, precarious jobs, unemployment, poor health, low social status, lack of opportunity for promotion etc. That is what our publication “Learning a Living” is about: we provide a measure and we go deep in the analysis. We can therefore prove that there is a strong correlation between low level of literacy and all these problems people are faced with.
To conclude, I truly believe that learning to learn will become one of the most important skills in a near future. Having basic reading skills is a condition to being able to learn, simply because everything comes in written. It is a foundation skill we are talking about, a skills that allow for the accumulation of others skills. And that’s why it’s a key issue for policy making.

Responses: Patrick Werquin, 17 October 2005 patrick.werquin@oecd.org
Full report downloadable for free at: www.oecd.org/dataoecd/44/7/34867438.pdf