British watch more TV than US cousins
But, as in other countries, adults aged 45 to 65 are on average less literate than the youngest adults. The 12-country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study tested 40,000 16 to 65-year-olds in three types of literacy - prose (newspapers), document (charts, graphs and maps) and quantitative (numerical data).
It shows that literacy levels in the UK, where 6,700 adults were tested, are similar to those of the United States. Britain has a much more literate population than Poland - the weakest of the countries surveyed - but lags behind Sweden, which was top in every category.
The survey also reveals British women outscored men in prose tests but were less adept with statistics.
One of the survey's more anomalous findings is that British adults watch more television than Americans do. However they are more likely to read books and write letters.
The survey also confirms the gulf between the top and bottom 25 per cent in Britain. The other countries with a wide span of literacy skills are Poland, Ireland and the US.
The OECD researchers say the study underlines the urgent need for comprehensive literacy strategies. They conclude: "The first step is to create a framework of understanding that literacy is important to economic productivity, to health and well-being, and to social cohesion in a modern society; that literacy is everyone's concern; and that reducing inequalities is the key to achieving high literacy scores."
It is the second report to emerge from the International Adult Literacy Survey. The first, published in 1995, covered seven countries. The researchers have since added data on Australia, Belgium (Flanders), Ireland, New Zealand and the UK.
Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society, obtainable from OECD Communications, Paris (tel 00 331 45 24 91 65) David Budge