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.
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.