The Malta Independent 14 July 2024, Sunday
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Maltese Literacy rates ‘of particular concern’

Malta Independent Sunday, 9 September 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

€10.5bn GDP increase over a generation through better literacy skills

Malta’s flagging literacy rate among 15-year-olds is of particular concern, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth Androulla Vassiliou and Princess Laurentien of The Netherlands − the Chair of the High-Level Group on Literacy set up by the Commission to look into the EU’s concerning literacy rates − write in an opinion piece published in today’s issue.

They additionally cite research which shows that if Europe were to achieve its current 2020 goal of functional literacy among 85 per cent of 15-year-olds, as well the 85 per cent targets in maths and science, the EU’s gross domestic product could rise by a whopping €21 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010.

For Malta, this translates into increase of €10.5 billion over the lifetime of the current generation of children.

In their opinion piece, timed to mark yesterday’s International Literacy Day, Commissioner Vassiliou and Princess Laurentien warn, “The recent publication of the first PISA results for Malta shows that the situation is particularly serious in Malta.

“Latest statistics show that the ratio of low achievers in reading among 15-year-olds is 36.3 per cent, considerably higher than the EU average (19.6 per cent in 2009). Moreover, Malta has the highest gender gap in the EU, as low achievement is twice more prevalent among boys (48.4 per cent) than among girls (24.4 per cent).”

The figures certainly do not bode well for Malta, although the country has recently registered some success in stemming the flow of early school leavers, although it remains in last place among its EU fellow member states in this respect.

At an average of 36.3 per cent, Malta is the third worst performer in terms of reading literacy in the EU and is just behind Romania (40.4 per cent) and Bulgaria (41 per cent), an EU conference on ‘Literacy for All’ held under the EU’s Cypriot Presidency heard this week in Nicosia. The figures are a far cry from top literacy performer Finland’s 8.1 per cent and even from the EU average of 19.7 per cent.

They add in the article, “The current statistics do not bode well for the future. People with low literacy are less likely to finish school, more likely to be unemployed, especially in times of crisis, and more likely to suffer from poor health. Poor literacy thwarts aspiration and ambition. Children of adults with poor literacy skills are more likely to struggle in reading. More broadly, poor literacy limits personal development and civic participation, increases poverty, hinders innovation, reduces productivity and holds back economic growth.

“Addressing literacy is not expensive in the long run. Investment in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) is one of the best investments countries can make in Europe’s future human capital. Children who have benefited from ECEC are more literate and do better at school.

Literacy crisis ‘wake-up call’

This week, the high-level group issued “wake-up call” for the EU member states to address what it called a ‘literacy crisis’, advising that the EU needs to overhaul its approach to improving literacy standards. The expert group’s chair Princess Laurentien, a long-time campaigner in the field, described 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 creating libraries in unconventional settings such as 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.

Commissioner Vassiliou remarked earlier this week, “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.“

EU Education Ministers have set a joint target to reduce the ratio of 15-year-olds with poor reading skills from 20 per cent at present to 15 per cent by 2020. The high-level group’s report highlights a significant EU-wide gender gap, with 13.3 per cent of low achievers being girls compared to 26.6 per cent for boys. The gender gap is smallest in The Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, and highest in Malta, Bulgaria and Lithuania.

The report highlights that good literacy skills are essential for improving people’s lives, and for promoting knowledge, innovation and growth. Changes in the nature of work, the economy and society generally mean that literacy is more important than ever in today’s world and that Europe should therefore aim for 100 per cent functional literacy among all its citizens.

The report states that literacy is a “big deal” because:

The labour market requires ever higher literacy skills (by 2020, it is estimated that 35 per cent of all jobs will require high-level qualifications compared to 29 per cent today);

Social and civic participation are more literacy-dependent in the digital world;

The population is ageing and their literacy skills, including digital literacy skills, need updating;

Poverty and low literacy are locked in a vicious circle, each fuelling the other;

Growing mobility and migration are making literacy more and more multilingual, combining a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

For young children, the report deems it essential that member states implement family literacy programmes to improve the reading and writing skills of both parents and children. Such programmes are cost-effective. Investment in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) is one of the best investments countries can make in Europe’s future human capital, the report notes, and children who have benefited from ECEC are more literate and do better in school.

Primary schools need to recruit more specialist reading teachers and low performing pupils should get individual assistance as soon as the need arises. School libraries should have reading materials that are attractive and challenging for all age groups, and the use of ICT tools and digital reading should be encouraged in class and at home.

Adolescents need more diverse reading material, from comics to set literary texts and e-books to motivate all readers, especially boys. Co-operation between schools and businesses should be promoted to make literacy learning more relevant to real-life situations. The taboo around adult literacy problems needs to be broken. NGOs, media, employers, societal organisations and celebrities all have a role to play in communicating more widely on adult literacy and its solutions.

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