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Swiss plagued by poor literacy

Swiss schoolchildren are below average in their reading and comprehension skills

(Keystone Archive)

A significant proportion of the Swiss population has difficulty with reading and writing, according to a study carried out for the government.

Presenting the findings on Monday, the federal office for culture said tackling illiteracy had to be treated as a political priority.

Deputy director Christoph Reichenau told a news conference that nine per cent of the population and 63 per cent of foreigners had only basic reading skills.

"The problem is that in our well-developed country people have to perform very well and if they are not able to do this they will find it difficult to be integrated," he told swissinfo.

A further 31 per cent of Swiss and 20 per cent of foreign residents had reading skills which were adequate in everyday life but insufficient for the challenges of applying for new job.

All levels of society affected

The study found that reading and writing difficulties were not confined to the disadvantaged, but could affect all levels of society and resulted in problems including a lack of confidence, alienation, limited choice of jobs and a higher than average risk of unemployment.

Reichenau said illiteracy also had a negative impact on the economy, in terms of reduced competitiveness.

The director of the association "Read and Write", Elisabeth Derisiotis, told swissinfo that the highly competitive job market has made good reading and writing skills a top priority.

"In our age where people often have more than one job, it is important that they are able to train themselves and follow written instructions. Nowadays illiterate people are more handicapped than before," she said.

Taboo subject

The taboo of illiteracy could only be broken by a political strategy involving the cantons, business, voluntary organisations and the government, the federal office said. It stressed the need for early recognition of the problem among children; the importance of school education and literacy drives aimed at immigrants.

Silvia Grossenbacher, one author of the report, thinks that so far not enough has been done to tackle illiteracy.

"One of the major problem is that illiteracy is often treated as a taboo subjects. We have had the numbers for several years but there has never been a campaign to solve the problem - and that's what we are trying to change," she said.

However, people who are illiterate often find it difficult to admit to their problem and Grossenbacher believes they have a certain strategy to get around it.

"Many of them have a wife or a husband who reads and writes for them. And if they have to fill in a form, for example, they say they have broken their arm or something make up a similar excuse," Grossenbacher said.

Schoolchildren below average

Debate over literacy skills has been raging since an international study in December concluded that Swiss schoolchildren were below average in their reading and comprehension skills.

The study, by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), found up to 20 per cent of 15-year-olds in Switzerland could not understand even the most basic written information.

The findings of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) shocked the educational establishment, after it revealed big gaps in educational standards between Swiss students from higher and lower social backgrounds, and between pupils who spoke a Swiss national language as their mother tongue, and those who did not (see "Schools must adapt to changing times" below).

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