Literacy levels and education


Sir, – The claim that 20 per cent of university graduates aged 20 to 34 in Ireland have “no more than a basic grasp of language”, which is based on a new OECD report on the PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) study, is problematic for a number of reasons (“OECD finds literacy an issue in Irish education”, January 30th).

Overall response rates on PIAAC – a household survey involving those aged 16 to 65 and administered in 2012 – were uniformly low across participating countries, with only Australia (71 per cent) and Ireland (72 per cent) exceeding the required 70 per cent. Figures for Sweden (45 per cent) and the Netherlands (54 per cent) raise doubts about the validity of the findings, given that these countries contributed to averages, scores and percentages against which performance in Ireland is benchmarked. Moreover, no response-rate figures are provided for subgroups mentioned in the report. Graduates who emigrated from Ireland to seek work abroad were not included.

The graphic accompanying the article uses proficiency level three as a cut-off point to denote poor literacy, with 20 per cent of graduates in Ireland performing below this level. Almost no graduates in Ireland perform below level two – the cut-point usually used by the OECD to denote low performance.

Readers may also be surprised at the low ranking in literacy of those aged 16 to 19 that you report. After all, in 2012, 15-year-olds in Ireland ranked fourth of 34 OECD countries on reading literacy in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study. Without data on the quality of the sample of those aged 16 to 19 in PIAAC, it is unsafe to conclude that a deterioration in average literacy skills occurs after age 15. The low ranking of those aged 16 to 19 could also arise from differences between the skills assessed by the two studies (PIAAC emphasises functional literacy skills to a greater extent than Pisa). A further confounding factor is the clustering of average scores in PIAAC, where just a few score points separate high-scoring and low-scoring countries.

There may be problems with the literacy levels of teenagers in Ireland and of graduates of Irish universities. However, without further critical analysis, the PIAAC study cannot be relied on as a definitive measure of the extent of such problems or as a basis for devising sound policy. – Yours, etc,



Research Centre,

St Patrick’s College,

Drumcondra, Dublin 9.