Brussels/Nicosia, 6 September 2012
High-level group issues 'wake-up call' for Member States to address literacy crisis
The European Union needs to overhaul its approach to improving literacy standards, according to a high-level group of experts set up by European Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou to address the issue. One in five 15 year olds, as well as nearly 75 million adults, lack basic reading and writing skills, which makes it hard for them to get a job and increases their risk of poverty and social exclusion. The expert group's chair, HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, a long-time campaigner in the field, describes the report as a "wake-up call about the crisis that affects every country in Europe". The 80-page report includes a raft of recommendations, ranging from advice for parents on creating a culture of reading for pleasure with their children, to siting libraries in unconventional settings like shopping centres and the need to attract more male teachers to act as role models for boys, who read much less than girls. It also makes age-specific recommendations, calling for free, high-quality early childhood education and care for all, more specialist reading teachers in primary schools, a change of mind-set on dyslexia, arguing that almost every child can learn to read with the right support, and for more varied learning opportunities for adults, especially in the workplace.
Androulla Vassiliou, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, said: "We are living a paradox: while reading and writing are more important and relevant than ever before in the context of our digitised world, our literacy skills are not keeping up. We urgently need to reverse this alarming situation. Investments to improve literacy among citizens of all ages make economic sense, producing tangible gains for individuals and for society, adding up to billions of euros in the long run."
Princess Laurentien added: "Reading and writing are much more than a technique or a skill. Literacy is about people’s self-esteem and ability to function and flourish in society as private individuals, active citizens, employees, or parents. We need clear, coordinated national strategies and much better awareness across Europe, not only in policy and educational circles, but also in hospitals, workplaces and especially in families. It is time for Europe to raise its level of ambition and ensure literacy for all."
The report, unveiled at a conference in Nicosia hosted by the Cyprus Presidency of the EU, provides examples of successful literacy projects in European countries, as well as spotlighting individuals who have overcome the taboo of illiteracy and transformed their lives. It also seeks to dispel common myths about literacy (see Annex 1).
EU Education Ministers have set a joint target to reduce the ratio of 15 year olds with poor reading skills from 20% at present to 15% by 2020. The high-level group's report highlights a significant gender gap, with 13.3% of low achievers among girls compared with 26.6% for boys. The gender gap is smallest in the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, and highest in Malta, Bulgaria and Lithuania (2009 statistics). Annex 2 details the overall percentage of low achievers in reading in Member States and Annex 3 provides an overview of the gender gap.
Background: why literacy is a 'big deal'
The report highlights that good literacy skills are essential for improving people’s lives, and for promoting knowledge, innovation and growth. Changes in the nature of work, the economy and society more generally mean that literacy is more important than ever in today's world and that Europe should therefore aim for 100% functional literacy among all its citizens.
The report states that literacy is a 'big deal' because:
The labour market requires ever higher literacy skills (by 2020, it is estimated that 35% of all jobs will require high-level qualifications compared to 29% today);
Social and civic participation are more literacy-dependent in the digital world;
The population is ageing and their literacy skills, including digital literacy skills, need updating;
Poverty and low literacy are locked in a vicious circle, each fuelling the other;
Growing mobility and migration are making literacy more and more multilingual, combining a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
The report makes recommendations for each age group.
For young children it is essential that Member States implement family literacy programmes to improve the reading and writing skills of both parents and children. Such programmes are very cost-effective. Investment in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) is one of the best investments countries can make in Europe's future human capital. Children who have benefited from ECEC are more literate and do better in school. Studies show that if Europe achieves its 2020 benchmark for basic skills in literacy, maths and science (target is 85% of 15-year-olds), this could lead to a GDP gain of €21 trillion over the lifetime of children born in 2010.
Primary schools need to recruit more specialist reading teachers and low performing pupils should get individual assistance as soon as the need arises. School libraries should have reading materials which are attractive and challenging for all age groups, and the use of ICT tools and digital reading should be encouraged in class and at home.
Adolescents need more diverse reading material, from comics to set literary texts and ebooks to motivate all readers, especially boys. Co-operation between schools and businesses should be promoted to make literacy learning more relevant to real-life situations. The taboo around adult literacy problems needs to be broken. NGOs, media, employers, societal organisations and celebrities all have a role to play in communicating more widely about adult literacy and its solutions.
Language learning: The report notes that literacy has a growing multilingual and migrant dimension due to increased mobility in Europe. In 2009, 10% of 15-year-olds in the EU were born in another country or had both parents born abroad, compared to 7% in 2000. In some countries, such as Italy or Spain, the percentage of migrant children rose fivefold from 2000 to 2010. Language learning is therefore more important, not only as a tool of communication, but as a means of building mutual understanding. While low literacy itself is not primarily a migration problem (the vast majority of children and adults with poor literacy were born in the country they live in), the report states more tailored support is needed, based on an understanding of individual language and literacy needs.
Commissioner Vassiliou will discuss the report's findings with Education Ministers at their informal meeting in Cyprus on 4-5 October. The discussions will form the basis for Council Conclusions on Literacy, in which EU countries will set out agreed priorities, both for themselves and for the Commission, to tackle literacy problems more effectively.
European Commission: Education and training
Follow Androulla Vassiliou on Twitter @VassiliouEU
Dina Avraam (+32 2 295 96 67)
Annex 1 - Misconceptions about literacy
The report seeks to dispel some widely-shared misconceptions about the nature, size and scope of the literacy issue:
‘Low literacy is something that happens in developing countries, surely not in Europe?’
One in five European 15-year-olds and almost one in five adults lack the literacy skills required to successfully function in a modern society.
‘Low literacy is a problem imported by migrants, not for those born and bred in European countries.’
The vast majority of children and adults with poor literacy skills were born and raised in the country they live in, and speak its language of instruction as their mother tongue.
‘Some people just cannot learn to read and write.’
Almost everyone who struggles with reading and writing could develop adequate literacy skills, given the right support. Only people with the most severe cognitive difficulties are incapable of developing functional literacy.
‘School is responsible for teaching children to read and write.’
Schools play an important role but are not solely responsible. A broad range of actors shape literacy development, from parents and peers to health services and others. After formal education, employers have a vital role to play.
‘Dyslexia is an incurable condition so there’s nothing we can do about it.’
Today's children are increasingly expected to progress in reading and writing at a standard speed and through one methodology. Struggling readers are often diagnosed as dyslexic. The diagnosis should be ‘struggling reader', and the focus should be on solving the problem. Every child can, in principle, learn to read and write.
‘It’s too late to do anything about literacy problems after children finish primary school. Improving struggling readers’ skills is too time-consuming, too difficult and too expensive to be worth the effort.’
Millions of children enter secondary school able to read, but not well enough to do well in school. With specialised support, these young people can develop good or even excellent literacy skills. Programmes aimed at improving struggling readers’ skills have a high rate of success, and are extremely cost-effective. This investment pays for itself dozens and possibly even hundreds of times over during the course of an individual's life.
‘Parents have no influence on their children's literacy development after the early years.’
Parents' attitudes and literacy practices have a very large influence on their children's literacy development, all the way through secondary school. Interventions to improve parents' support skills have a large impact on child literacy.
Annex 2 - Percentage of low achievers in reading (PISA study)
Programme for International Student Assessment 2000-2009
EU (18 countries)
EU (25 countries)
UK, NL, LU: 2000 results not comparable to later years
Annex 3 – Gender gap in reading