With one in five 15-year-olds and 75 million adults lacking basic reading and writing skills, Europe desperately needs to improve its literacy standards, says Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.

Together with a high-level group of experts, Vassiliou, who is the EU's Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, has published a report on literacy, unveiled at a conference in Nicosia hosted by the Cyprus Presidency of the EU.

The report consists of recommendations ranging from parenting advice to setting up libraries in unconventional settings like for example shopping centres.

Vassiliou said that being illiterate makes it hard for a person to get a job and increases the risk of poverty and social exclusion.

"We are living a paradox: while reading and writing are more important and relevant than ever before in the context of our digitised world, our literacy skills are not keeping up," the Commissioner said.

"We urgently need to reverse this alarming situation. Investments to improve literacy among citizens of all ages make economic sense, producing tangible gains for individuals and for society, adding up to billions of euros in the long run."

The Cypriot Commissioner is calling for free, high-quality early childhood education and care for all, more specialist reading teachers in primary schools, and a change of mind-set on dyslexia.

She argues that almost every child can learn to read with the right support, and for more varied learning opportunities for adults, especially in the workplace.

Dutch princess leads EU literacy campaign

The chair of the expert group, HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, a long-time campaigner in the field, describes the report as a "wake-up call about the crisis that affects every country in Europe".

"Reading and writing are much more than a technique or a skill. Literacy is about people’s self-esteem and ability to function and flourish in society as private individuals, active citizens, employees, or parents," the Dutch princess said.

"We need clear, coordinated national strategies and much better awareness across Europe, not only in policy and educational circles, but also in hospitals, workplaces and especially in families. It is time for Europe to raise its level of ambition and ensure literacy for all," she added.

EU Education Ministers have set a joint target to reduce the ratio of 15-year-olds with poor reading skills from 20% at present to 15% by 2020.

The high-level group's report highlights a significant gender gap, with 13.3% of low achievers among girls compared with 26.6% for boys. The gender gap is smallest in the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, and highest in Malta, Bulgaria and Lithuania.