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U.S. Literacy Rates Among West’s Highest, Study Finds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The United States ranks among the most literate nations in the Western world, surpassed only by three Scandinavian countries, Canada and the Netherlands, according to a survey released Friday.

At the same time, a high percentage of older Americans lack even rudimentary skills to read the instructions on a bottle of medicine, the study showed.

Finland, Norway and Sweden--home to relatively homogeneous populations--led the pack among adults ages 26 to 65. Sweden took top honors.

The United States ranked “significantly above average” among the 22 countries that participated in the four-year study, which was funded principally by the U.S. Department of Education.

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The United States was at the top of a cluster of countries that included Germany, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. Poland, Slovenia, Chile and Portugal landed at the bottom.

The survey’s main author attributed the above-average showing to the comparative quality of high school and college education in the United States.

Swedish education professor Albert Tuijnman said the competitive American labor market also plays a role by attracting “the best and the brightest” immigrants and by prompting workers to improve their skills.

The survey also revealed that 20% of Americans between 45 and 65 cannot read the instructions on a medicine bottle. By comparison, 12% of Swedes lack those skills, as do 69% of Chileans.

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Not surprisingly, the survey showed that in the United States, immigrants who speak English as a second language possess far lower literacy levels in English than native English speakers. For example, among those ages 16 to 65, 64% of immigrants perform at the lowest literacy levels, while just 14% of native-born Americans do. Similar differences appeared in other countries.

More than 75,000 people, ages 16 to 65, were interviewed and tested in their homes between 1994 and 1998 for the study, known as the International Adult Literacy Survey. The same tests were translated and administered in 22 countries.


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