The 10 Most Literate Countries in the World (Nope, the U.S. Isn't No. 1)

An analysis of literacy behaviors and standardized-test results for 61 nations reveals some surprises.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Mar 9, 2016
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

In late February, when President Obama selected Carla Hayden, head of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, to run the Library of Congress, he lauded her commitment to boosting the community’s use of the facility and providing patrons with greater access to computers. Hayden’s focus might also get a thumbs-up from the authors of a new study that ranks 61 countries from most to least literate.

The study, led by John W. Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University, examined several factors, such as Internet and library resources, newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, years of schooling, and literacy scores on standardized tests. According to those criteria, Finland—known for its high-performing education system—is the world’s most literate nation.

RELATED: Finland’s Education System: 10 Surprising Facts That Americans Shouldn’t Ignore

Miller has spent the past 40 years studying literacy and in 2003 teamed up with the university’s Center for Public Policy and Social Research to produce an annual report, America’s Most Literate Cities. With 781 million illiterate people around the globe, according to the United Nations, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Miller and his team broadened their lens beyond the United States.

“The factors we examine present a complex and nuanced portrait of a nation’s cultural vitality,” said Miller in a statement. “And what the rankings strongly suggest and world literacy demonstrates is that these kinds of literate behaviors are critical to the success of individuals and nations in the knowledge-based economies that define our global future.”

Miller’s team set out to analyze data for 200 countries but was only able to find reliable information for the 61 profiled in the study. No nation from central Africa is included. Other Nordic countries—Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden—round out the top five spots in the ranking because “their monolithic culture values reading,” said Miller. Meanwhile, the United States came in seventh. Botswana ranked last, while Colombia, Morocco, Thailand, and Indonesia rounded out the bottom five. 

The study is the first of its kind to weave together information on behavioral factors that indicate literacy, such as newspaper circulation, with reading scores from standardized tests. Miller and his team analyzed data from assessments such as the triennial Programme for International Student Assessment test, the most highly regarded international standardized exam in the world. “The Pacific Rim countries—Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and China—would top the list if test performance was the only measure,” said Miller. However, “when factors such as library size and accessibility are added in, the Pacific Rim nations drop dramatically,” he said.

RELATED: D.C. Library Fosters Kids’ Love of Learning With 5 Years of Free Books

The results of a PDK/Gallup poll last year found that 64 percent of Americans believe there is too much standardized testing at their local schools, so critics will likely take issue with researchers including this data. But according to Miller, how well students perform on a standardized test may not be the best indication of whether they’re well educated or if they will be inquisitive, lifelong readers. The authors found that “there is no meaningful correlation between years of compulsory schooling and educational expenditures on the one hand and test scores on the other,” said Miller.

 

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