Wake-up call for EU as Japan tops reading, math table
Six-year-old Japanese elemetary student Seishi Nishida walks to school in Tokyo on June 11, 2013
The study, conducted in 22 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member states as well as Russia and Cyprus, involved tests on 166,000 people aged between 16 and 65.
Europe fared badly and EU officials called for immediate action to narrow the chasm.
Only 4.9 percent of Japanese adults had scores of 1 or less on a scale of 1 to 5, indicating difficulty in reading a simple text, the OECD Skills Outlook 2013 report said.
The highest level 5 denotes the ability to search and process information from dense texts and evaluate evidence-based arguments.
"Roughly every fifth Finn and Japanese reads at high levels (Level 4 or 5 on the Survey of Adult Skills)," the study said.
"This means, for example, that they can perform multiple-step operations to integrate, interpret, or synthesise information," it said.
The corresponding figure was less than one per 20 for Spain and Italy. The OECD average was 15.5 percent.
The report said Japanese nationals aged between 25 and 34 who had only finished secondary education were far ahead in writing skills than university graduates in the same age bracket in Spain and in Italy.
The results were similar for mathematical ability with the Japanese outstripping the others. Only 8.1 percent had problems in tackling a basic sum and were evaluated at level 1 or less.
The figure for France was 28 percent while it was more than 30 percent for Italy and Spain.
OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria said the wide gap revealed in the study should serve as a warning for stragglers.
"This study is a wake-up call to see what the others are doing and to draw lessons from that," Gurria, a Mexican, told a press conference in Brussels.
Androulla Vassiliou, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture and Youth, said the survey "confirms that one in five European citizens of working age have only low reading skills and almost one in four have low numeracy skills."
"Europe must act urgently to address these problems if we are to achieve the levels of employment, productivity, innovation, competitiveness and social inclusion that we all want to see," she said.
The OECD survey said in digital technology, at least 10 percent in nearly all the countries lacked basic skills to use a computer.
Swedes topped the ranking in computer literacy and digital skills with 8.8 percent ranked at a very high level, followed by Finland and Japan.
The report also showed that those with strong literacy skills earned salaries about 60 percent higher than others less competent.
And those with literacy levels of 1 or less were at greater risk of being unemployed. The figure on an average was seven percent for them against four percent for those placed at the highest levels of 4 and 5.
The ones lagging behind in literacy levels also reported poorer health and were less committed citizens.
The study also said that "immigrants with a foreign-language background have significantly lower proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments than native-born adults."
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