Finland ranked world's most literate nation.
Finland ranked world's most literate nation.
Report pooling studies of ‘literate behavior characteristics’ from around the world puts the Nordic country first, 16 places ahead of the UK.
(Primary school pupil in Vaasa, Finland. Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images).
Finland is the world’s most literate nation, according to new research, with the UK coming in 17th, behind countries including the US, Canada and Australia.
Home to Tove Jansson, the author of the much-loved Moomin books, and a widely praised education system, Finland topped a table of world literacy in a new study conducted by John Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. The research looked at literacy achievement tests and also at what it called “literate behavior characteristics” – everything from numbers of libraries and newspapers to years of schooling and computer availability in the countries.
Rather than measuring a country’s ability to read, the World’s Most Literate Nations says it ranks nations on their “literate behaviors and their supporting resources”. It set out to look at data from 200 countries, drawing from sources ranging from Unesco to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but only 61 made the final cut, “due to lack of relevant statistics”. Population was also considered, to give per capita ratios.
The Nordic countries dominated the top of the charts, with Finland in first place and Norway in second, and Iceland, Denmark and Sweden rounding out the top five. Switzerland follow in sixth, with the US in seventh, Canada in 11th, France in 12th and the UK in 17th place. Botswana was last, in 61st place, behind Indonesia in 60th and Thailand in 59th.
Miller said that “the factors we examined present a complex and nuanced portrait of a nation’s cultural vitality”, and that “what the rankings strongly suggest … is that these kinds of literate behaviors are critical to the success of individuals and nations in the knowledge-based economics that define our global future”.
“The power and value of being literate in a literate society is played out every day around the world,” says the report. “Many individuals, and even whole societies, make considerable sacrifices to become literate just as others take it for granted. Societies that do not practice literate behavior are often squalid, undernourished in mind and body, repressive of human rights and dignity, brutal and harsh.”
The report discovered that if it only ranked nations on their reading assessment results, the final tables would have been very different. When this is the only factor considered, Singapore comes in top, with South Korea, Japan and China in second, fourth and fifth places respectively. Finland is the only non-Pacific Rim country to make the top five, in joint second place. The UK is 26th.
Adding in the numbers of academic, public and school libraries, and the numbers of books in libraries – Estonia, Latvia and Norway top this list – as well as statistics on years of schooling, computer penetration and newspapers, changes the results significantly. “When factors other than test scores are included, there is not a single Pacific Rim country among the top 25,” says the report.
Miller said that a consistent finding from the report was that “there is no meaningful correlation between years of compulsory schooling and educational expenditures on the one hand and test scores on the other”.
He believes that Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden took the five top slots in the study because “their monolithic culture values reading”.
Finnish author Aki Ollikainen, whose debut novel White Hunger has just been long-listed for the Man Booker International prize, said: “The most important thing is that schooling is equal, reading and educating have been appreciated also by working class and that the profession of teaching and education is also appreciated.”
He added: “I have to say, that I´m very proud of the Finnish school system and also our libraries, which have very versatile collections available to all. Everybody has an equal opportunity to learn and to read. In Finland we are used to keeping this obvious, but globally it is luxurious.”
Commenting on the US’s performance, Miller said that while the country had seen its years of compulsory education increase, its practice of literate behaviors had decreased, while the ability to read had stayed relatively the same. “It is not so much that we are slowing down in this world race, but rather that others are speeding up,” he said.
Diana Gerald, chief executive of UK reading charity BookTrust, said the message to draw from the research was that “we have to get children reading more, and enjoying it more”.
“We’re not going to change this ranking unless we have a nation that is reading. And it’s a virtuous circle – if you read more for enjoyment, you enjoy reading more, and so you read more,” she said. “And that will show up in these figures.”
Gerald said the 17th place was not “absolutely dreadful, but why wouldn’t we want to be top?”
“We come from the nation of Dickens and Shakespeare, we have an extraordinary literary background,” she said. “I believe we are doing lots of good work on core literacy and phonics, which are vital, but we need to add … getting children from a young age into loving reading, and wanting to read ... We’ve got to get the fun and enjoyment back into reading.”
Top 10 most literate countries.
Top five by educational investment.
Top five by test scores.
3 South Korea
5 Czech Republic
By households with computers.
The United Kingdom ranks.
11 by computer
12 by educational investment
29.5 by libraries
31 by newspapers
26 by tests
• The subheading on this article was amended on 11 March 2016. An earlier version described Finland as a Scandinavian country. (By Alison Flood).
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