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Illiteracy is not something of the pastImage: AP

Trapped in Illiteracy

February 19, 2002

The European Parliament has called for measures to combat illiteracy and social exclusion - a still widespread deficit across Europe.


In advanced societies, illiteracy is closely linked to social exclusion, to shame, social immobility – and poverty.

Illiteracy is still a black hole in modern-day society, with around 960 million people all over the world unable to read or write.

In an effort to throw light on the state of illiteracy in Europe, the European Parliament has published a fresh report showing that illiteracy is still a grave problem in modern-day society. According to the report, "10-20 per cent of the Union's population and up to 30 per cent of the population of EU candidate countries are unable to understand and use the printed and written matter necessary to function in society".

In Portugal for instance, almost half the population can barely read and write. Even iIn Germany, 14 per cent of the country’s population is stated to have severe difficulties reading and writing.

Nordic lead

The report’s disclosure of severe literacy deficits throughout the European Union is not new. In June 2000, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, published one of the most extensive reports on illiteracy yet, measuring levels of literacy in 20 countries over a period of 5 years.

Here, as in the European Parliament’s 2002 report, Sweden topped the list of literacy, followed by other Northern European countries such as Denmark and Norway. Germany came 5th, ahead of the US, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which ranked in the lower half of the survey.

However, even in Sweden – the country with the highest score in the test - 8 per cent of the adult population has severe difficulties reading and writing in everyday life and work. In addition, the report disclosed that one in four of those populations that participated in the tests failed to reach the minimum level of literacy.

According to the OECD, literacy is defined "as the ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities, at home, at work and in the community – to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential". It is here, that the tragedy of illiteracy takes on a pathetic form – as a crippling defect which leads to shame, poverty and ill-health.

Change through communication

Today, the definition of illiteracy must be redefined. Levels of illiteracy have undergone changes with the advancement of modern communication, especially the computer.

The OECD study found that education has a direct bearing on literacy. However, the European Parliament found that despite being highly educated, many people suffer from another form of illiteracy – "computer illiteracy".

Whereas illiterates are generally thought to be trapped in menial jobs and end up in prison more often than those who can read and write, today’s "computer illiterates" may be highly intellectual, but fear modern technology.

With around 960 million illiterate people around the world, in addition to the report, the MEPs voted in favour of a resolution seeking to establish joint action against illiteracy at a European level.

Parliament argued that this action should become an integral part of all Community policies, calling on the Commission to submit a Green Paper and propose specific standards and benchmarks relating to illiteracy.

In addition, the MEPS called for a European illiteracy monitoring centre – essential, especially with EU enlargement not far away. Illiteracy remains high in eastern Europe – 43 per cent of Poland’s population is believed to be illiterate.

MEPs voted by 367 to 1 with 6 abstentions, in favour of a resolution seeking to establish joint action at European level, against illiteracy. Parliament argued that this action should become an integral part of all Community policies.

MEPs are calling on the Commission to propose a recommendation to Member States on measures to be taken at the national, local and regional level. MEPs say that the Commission and the Council should also set up a European illiteracy monitoring centre.

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