International literacy day – September 8, 2021

Since 1967, International Literacy Day celebrations have taken place annually around the world to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights, and to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society. Despite progress made, literacy challenges persist with at least 773 million young people and adults lacking basic literacy skills today[1].

One way to measure literacy[2] is through the PISA study (Program for International Student Assessment). It is an international study that examines 15-year-olds’ knowledge in reading comprehension, mathematics and science. The study is conducted every three years, and both OECD and non-OECD countries participate. The Nordic countries and self-governing regions all[3] participate, except for Greenland.

Students in Finland have had the highest scores of the Nordic countries in all assessments, even though the scores have declined over time. For the Faroe Islands the opposite development is seen, they have had the lowest scores of the Nordic countries when participating, but the scores has steadily increased over time. When reported separately, Åland is found at the same high level as Finland. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland have had similar results since the first study in 2000, all in line with the OECD average.

In most of the Nordic countries, except for Iceland and the Faroe Islands, the students performed better than the OECD average in the latest study from 2018. The score for literacy in the 2018 study was lower than in the 2015 study for almost all countries. The exceptions were Sweden, where it was up by six points, and Denmark, where it was up by one point. The largest decrease was noted for Norway where it was down by 14 points and the Faroe Islands where it was down by 12 points. Iceland and Finland were down by eight and six points respectively.

In the Nordic region, as in the rest of the participating countries, girls score higher than boys. The difference between the sexes varies over time and country, but in 2018 it was between 24 and 51 points in the Nordic countries and self-governing regions. Finland has had the largest difference in all studies but one, while Denmark has had the smallest difference in all but two studies. The OECD average difference varies between 27 points in 2015 and 39 points in 2009.

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted the learning of children, young people and adults at an unprecedented scale. It has also magnified the pre-existing inequalities in access to meaningful literacy learning opportunities, disproportionally affecting 773 million non-literate young people and adults. Youth and adult literacy were absent in many initial national response plans, while numerous literacy programmes have been forced to halt their usual modes of operation.[1]

What the effect has been on literacy in the Nordic region is too early to tell. The OECD and the participating PISA countries have decided to postpone the PISA study that would have been conducted from 2021 to 2022 due to the pandemic. The results will be published in December 2023.

For more data on PISA-results in the Nordic countries, please see table PISA01, Student performance by reporting country, sex, time and subject, which can be found in the Nordic Statistics Database.

[2] Reading literacy is defined in PISA as the ability to understand, use and reflect on written texts in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate effectively in society.
[3] For Åland results cannot be reported separately for all assessments as too few schools participated some years. Åland has thus been excluded from the diagram.