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World literacy rates by country

The traditional definition of literacy is the ability to use language, i.e. to read, write, listen and speak and to understand and comprehend the meaning of such communication. In modern contexts, the word means reading and writing in a level adequate for written communication and generally a level that enables one to successfully function at certain levels of a society if that society is one in which literacy plays a role in providing access to power.

The standards for what level constitutes "literacy" vary among societies. Other skills such as computer skills or basic numeracy may also be included, as there are many people who cannot read letters but can read numbers, and even learn to use a computer (in a limited way) while remaining unable to read text. These and the increasing inclusion of sound, still and moving images and graphical elements in digitally based communication call for an even broader concept of literacy. (see: Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey, OECD 2000. PDF). In Scotland for example, literacy has been defined as: "The ability to read and write and use numeracy, to handle information, to express ideas and opinions, to make decisions and solve problems, as family members, workers, citizens and lifelong learners." This definition embraces the Social Practice approach to literacies education and its impact on the "four areas of life" - personal life, family life, work life, community life and engages the "five core skills" - communication, numeracy, problem solving, working with others and ICT (Information and Communications Technology). Recently the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have added "visually representing" to the list of communicative competences that are considered to constitute literacy.

Many policy analysts consider literacy rates a crucial measure of a region's human capital. This claim is made on the grounds that literate people can be trained less expensively than illiterate people. Policy makers also argue that literacy increases job opportunities and access to higher education. In Kerala, India, for example, female and child mortality rates declined dramatically in the 1960s, when girls schooled to literacy in the education reforms after 1948 began to raise families. Recent researchers, however, argue that correlations such as the one listed above may have more to do with the effects of schooling rather than literacy in general.

World literacy rates

See also: List of countries by literacy rate

Illiteracy is most prevalent in developing countries. South Asian, Arab and Sub-Saharan African countries are regions with the highest illiteracy rates at about 40 to 50%. East Asia and Latin America have illiteracy rates in the 10 to 15% region while developed countries have illiteracy rates of a few percent.

Within ethnically homogeneous regions, literacy rates can vary widely from country or region to region. This often coincides with the region's wealth or urbanization, though many factors play a role.

Literacy and the Industrial Revolution

Graph of declining illiteracy rates world-wide from 1970 to 2015

The history of literacy goes back several thousand years, but before the industrial revolution finally made cheap paper and cheap books available to all classes in industrialized countries in the mid-nineteenth century, only a small percentage of the population in these countries were literate. Up until that point, materials associated with literacy were prohibitively expensive for people other than wealthy individuals and institutions. For example, in England in 1841, 33% of men and 44% of women signed marriage certificates with their mark as they were unable to write. Only in 1870 was government-financed public education made available in England.

What constitutes literacy has changed throughout history. It has only recently become expected and desirable to be fully literate and demeaning if you are not. At one time, a literate person was one who could sign his or her name. At other points, literacy was measured by the ability to read the Bible. The benefit of clergy in common law systems became dependent on reading a particular passage.

Literacy has also been used as a way to sort populations and control who has access to power. In the United States following the Civil War, the ability to read and write was used to determine whether one had the right to vote. This effectively served to prevent former slaves from joining the electorate and maintained the status quo. From another perspective, the historian Harvey Graff has argued that the introduction of mass schooling was in part an effort to control the type of literacy that the working class had access to. That is, literacy learning was increasing outside of formal settings (such as schools) and this uncontrolled, potentially critical reading could lead to increased radicalization of the populace. Mass schooling was meant to temper and control literacy, not spread it.

Examples of highly literate cultures in the past

The slow spread of literacy in the ancient world. The dark blue areas were literate at around 2300 BCE. The dark green areas were literate at around 1300 BCE. The light green areas were literate at around 300 BCE. Note that other Asian societies were literate at these times, but they are not included on this map. Note also that even in the colored regions, functional literacy was usually restricted to a handful of ruling elite.

The existence of secular and religious texts as well as references to great metaphysical debates including reading and writing contests in those texts from the Indian subcontinent (South Asia) points to a highly, perhaps selectively, literate culture there as far back as five to eight thousand years ago. Some major Hindu texts and other discourses contesting them are supposed to be eight thousand years old.

The large amount of graffiti found at Roman sites such as Pompeii, shows that at least a large minority of the population would have been literate.

Because of its emphasis on the individual reading of the Qur'an in the original Arabic alphabet many Islamic countries have known a comparatively high level of literacy during most of the past twelve centuries. In Islamic edict (or Fatwa), to be literate is an individual religious obligation, not a privilege given to a few in the society.

In the middle ages, literacy rates among Jews in Europe were much higher than in the surrounding Christian populations. Most Jewish males learned to read and write Hebrew, at least. Judaism places great importance on the study of holy texts, the Tanakh and the Talmud.

In Wales, the literacy rate rocketed during the 18th Century, when Griffith Jones ran a system of circulating schools, with the aim of enabling everyone to read the Bible (in Welsh). It is claimed that, in 1750, Wales had the highest literacy rate of any country in the world.

Historically, the literacy rate has also been high in the Lutheran countries of Northern Europe. Already in the 1686 church law (kyrkolagen) of the Kingdom of Sweden (which at the time included all of modern Sweden, Finland, and Estonia) literacy was enforced on the people and a hundred years later, by the end of the 18th century, the literacy rate was close to 100 percent. Even before the 1686 law, literacy was widespread in Sweden. However, the ability to read did not automatically imply ability to write, and as late as the 19th century many Swedes, especially women, could not write. This proves even more difficult, because many literary historians measure literacy rates based on the ability that people had to sign their own names.

Teaching literacy

Some people argue that one of the most effective methods of teaching literacy involves direct instruction of simplified phonetic systems. Others, however, argue that a more holistic method modelled after the way language is acquired is the most effective for teaching literacy. This disagreement has been termed "the reading wars" and is most evident in the pressures placed on schools to use commodified, pre-packaged basal series and literacy programs to teach their children.

In English, for example, the Distar system, developed by the RAND Corporation, has been adapted into a simple literacy instruction manual ("Teach your Child to Read in 100 Lessons") that permits an adult to teach a child by simply reading and following instructions. All of the complex instructional lesson design, skill building and optimal repetition and review have been "canned" in the book's instructional design. A computer program is even available that uses a similar system, but directly pronounces and tests the lessons, eliminating the need for a literate adult.

Comprehensive phonic programs exist, based on such systems as the Orton phonogram system, which was invented to teach brain-damaged veterans to read again. Using the 73 Orton phonograms and 14 spelling rules, 50,000 English words can be accurately pronounced and spelled, with only 23 exceptional words. Such systems provide students with powerful basic language skills.

A key technique in many comprehensive phonic systems is a spelling copybook, a sort of personal dictionary in which a student keeps a personal alphabetized list of words for review. The copybook usually shows how the word is pronounced, accented and syllabalized, and how standard spelling rules are invoked to determine its conventional spelling.

Many educators today are changing practices of literacy instruction to reflect new knowledge about teaching and learning. A balanced approach to literacy instruction combines language and literature-rich activities associated with holistic reading instruction with the explicit teaching of skills as needed to develop the fluency and comprehension that proficient readers possess. Such instruction stresses the love of language, gaining meaning from print, and instruction of phonics in context. The Balanced Literacy approach to reading instruction incorporates many reading strategies in order to meet the varying needs of all students. Some of the components of the approach include phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, reading aloud to children, independent reading, guided reading, shared reading and literacy centers for independent practice. A Running Record, a documentation of a child’s reading behavior, is often used as an assessment tool to allow teachers to monitor the progress of students.

The conditions for whether one has achieved a certain state of "literacy" differ depends on who is defining the standard and why. For one attempt to define a standard of literacy, see [1].

The higher the level of literacy a person has, the more they are able to earn. You can see a graph showing this relationship at The Phonics Page. This relationship is contested by literacy researchers such as Brian Street point out that the socioeconomic level of a family has less to do with a child's literacy levels than other variables in their social context, for example class, ethnicity, region etc. Street would argue that the graph shows correlations rather than cause/effect relations.

Literacy readiness

It is well-established that children become able to "blend sounds" at different ages. According the National Reading Panel, reading readiness must be preceded by phonemic awareness, or the ability of the child to hear that words are made up of different phonemes or sounds. For example, cat is made up of three phonemes: the hard K sound, the short a sound, and the t sound. Following phonemic awareness is that of graphophonemics or letter-sound correspondence. Through direct instruction, the child learns to make the connection between phonemes and letters. Finally, the child is taught Phonics, which is the blending of letters to make particular sounds such as the "th."

Experts differ in their approach to the issue of teaching reading. Some advocate a delayed, but more rapid acquisition of reading by means of phonetics, while some advocate early acquisition of a basic vocabulary through a "see and say" method. The "see and say" method has fallen out of favor during the past several decades. The Dick and Jane series popular until the late 1950s in the United States was based on the "see and say" system. The most up-to-date methods approach reading instruction through a combination of methods that include phonic instruction for those words that can be attacked phonetically, see-say methods for sight words that do not follow the rules of phonics (though/rough/through, there/their, etc), and context clues for words that can be decoded but the immediate meaning is not obvious.

Phonetics is said to improve readers' spelling and writing abilities. See and say methods are said to increase the word acquisition rate and reading speed of many students. The problem with phonetics is that it does not address the issue of comprehension. Comprehension instruction must include attention to fluency, vocabulary, and the activation of prior knowledge.

While young children often require several hundred hours of instruction, spread over much of a year, motivated adults using a good instructional method can often acquire basic literacy with forty or fewer hours of instruction. This is most likely related to the wealth of contextual knowledge adults bring with them allowing them to make connections that young children are not yet able to do.

Steiner schools, that follow the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, do not introduce children to literacy until the age of seven, arguing that children are too young to learn to read before this age.


Many have been concerned about the illiteracy in the world population, despite the fact that literacy rates have increased steadily over the past few decades, especially in the third world. Third world nations which adopted Marxist ideology (China, Cuba, and Vietnam, for example), experienced some of the most dramatic growth of literacy, approaching Canadian and European rates. The United Nations defines illiteracy as the inability to read and write a simple sentence in any language. Figures of 1998 show that 16% of the world population is illiterate (by the UN definition).

The United States

In the United States, one in seven people (more than 40 million people) can barely read a job offer or utility bill, which arguably makes them functionally illiterate in a developed country such as the US. In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), conducted by the US Department of Education, found that fourteen percent of American adults scored at this “below basic” level in prose literacy. More than half of these persons did not have a high-school diploma or GED. Thirty-nine percent of persons at this level were Hispanic; 20 percent were black; and 37 percent were white. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, "results showed that the average quantitative literacy scores of adults increased 8 points between 1992 and 2003, though average prose and document literacy did not differ significantly from 1992. Among blacks, average prose literacy scores increased by 6 points and average document literacy scores rose by eight points between 1992 and 2003. The average prose scores of Asians/Pacific Islanders increased as well, rising 16 points between 1992 and 2003. The average prose literacy scores of Hispanics fell 18 points from 1992 to 2003, while average document literacy scores decreased by 14 points. Average prose and document literacy scores among whites did not change significantly." Literacy among college graduates declined between 1992 and 2003, with less than one-third of all graduates at the highest “proficient” level in 2003, and less than half of all graduates with advanced degrees at this level.

United Kingdom

Seven million UK residents are functionally illiterate, according to government figures. Another problem in the developed countries is the rise of secondary and tertiary illiteracy in recent years, i.e. the complete or partial loss of previously existing reading and writing skills due to lack of practice.

Other countries

Among the Arab states, more than 25% of men and 50% of women were not literate as of 2000. [2] The most likely reason for low levels of literacy is lack of education.

Some have suggested that the higher the literacy rate of a country, generally the longer the life span, although critics have argued that this is a Post hoc fallacy. Literacy does aid the provision of healthcare in a number of very practical ways (such as the ability to read prescriptions and understand medical diagnoses are two examples of this).

Literacy in the 21st century

Recent studies

A theoretical approach to understanding literacy that argues that literacy is not autonomous or a set of discrete technical and objective skills such as reading and writing that can be applied across context. Instead what counts as literacy is determined by the cultural, political, and historical contexts of the community in which it is used. Definitions of literacy are based on ideologies. Scholars associated with the New Literacy Studies include Brian Street, James Paul Gee, Allan Luke, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel to name a few. The New Literacy Studies draws across academic disciplines including cultural anthropology and linguistic anthropology. New literacies such as:

are all new literacies that are being introduced in contemporary literacy studies and media studies.

The importance of technological literacy

For the contemporary world, literacy now comes to mean more than just the ability to read, write and be numerate. It involves, at all levels, the ability to use and communicate in a diverse range of technologies. Since the computer and the Internet became mainstream in the early 1990s, its importance and centrality in communication has become unassailable. Therefore, images and sounds have become just as important as words and numbers in their ability to communicate ideas.

We should now, properly, speak of "literacies". These literacies always involve technology and the ability to use technology to negotiate the myriad of discourses that face us in the modern world. These literacies concern using information skillfully and appropriately, and are multi-faceted and involve a range of technologies and media. One such group of literacies that is growing in significance as personal computers become more powerful is multimedia literacy.

In sum, today's students need to cope with a complex mix of visual, auditory, oral, and interactive media as well as traditional text. People of lesser education or older people may see themselves falling behind as the informational gap between them and the people literate in the new media and technologies widens.

See also

International perspective

Literacy in countries of the world

External links


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  • Bright, William. (1984). The virtues of illiteracy. In American Indian linguistics and literature (pp. 149-159). Berlin: Mouton Publishers.
  • Finnegan, Ruth. (1973). Literacy vs. non-literacy: The great divide?: Some comments on the signficance of 'literature' in non-literate cultures. In R. Horton & R. Finnegan (Eds.), Modes of thought: Essays on thinking in Western and non-Western societies (pp. 112-144). London: Faber and Faber.* Freebody, P. & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect, 5(7), 7-16.
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