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The traditional definition of literacy is considered to be the ability to read and write, or the ability to use language to read, write, listen, and speak. In modern contexts, the word refers to reading and writing at a level adequate for communication, or at a level that lets one understand and communicate ideas in a literate society, so as to take part in that society. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has drafted the following definition: "Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society."


Many policy analystsTemplate:Weasel-inline 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, generally have a higher socio-economic status[1] and enjoy better health and employment prospects. 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 who were educated in the education reforms after 1948 began to raise families. Recent researchers,Template:Weasel-inline however, argue that correlations such as the one listed above may have more to do with the overall effects of schooling rather than literacy alone. In addition to the potential for literacy to increase wealth, wealth may promote literacy, through cultural norms and easier access to schools and tutoring services.[citation needed]


Illiteracy is the condition of not being able to read or write, and in modern times is seen as a social problem to be solved through education.

World literacy rates

File:Literacy rate world.svg
World literacy rates by country
Graph of declining illiteracy rates world-wide from 1970 to 2015
See also: List of countries by literacy rate

20% of the world population was illiterate in 1998 by the United Nations definition - the inability to read and write a simple sentence in any language.[citation needed]

Asian, Arab and Sub-Saharan African countries are regions with the lowest literacy rates at about 10% to 12%. 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.

Among the Arab states, 19.8% of men and 41.1% of women were not literate as of 2006.[2]


According to the the 2001 India census, India's national literacy is only 65.2 percent.[3] [4] Literacy drive is spreading slowly to other states.[5] India's youth (age 15 to 24) literacy rate was 76.4% between 2000 and 2004.[6] At current rates India will take no less than 20 years for a literacy of 95%.[7]. Literacy in India is not homogeneous. The southern state of Kerala recorded a 90.92% literacy rate in 2001, [8] while the northern state of Bihar was considerably lower at 47.53%.[9] India's overall adult literacy rate (61.3% in 2002), is slightly higher than other nations in South Asia, except Sri Lanka's 92%, [10] with Nepal next at 44%, Pakistan at 50-54% [1][2] and Bangladesh the lowest at 43.1% [3] Many Indians have argued that illiteracy, especially in the rural areas, gives undue advantage to contemporary politicians, who will take advantage of the situation to become corrupt and neglect issues of socio-economic development.[4].

United States

There are various definitions of literacy. Governments may label individuals who can read a couple of thousand simple words they learned by sight in the first four grades in school as literate. But the most comprehensive study of U.S. adult literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government proves that such adults are functionally illiterate--they cannot read well enough to hold a good job. Several studies have shown that millions of Americans never read another book after leaving school.

A five-year, $14 million study of U.S. adult literacy involving lengthy interviews of U.S. adults, the most comprehensive study of literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government,[11] was released in September 1993 revealing the shocking details. It involved lengthy interviews of over 26,700 adults statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, education level, and location (urban, suburban, or rural) in twelve states across the U.S. and was designed to represent the U.S. population as a whole. This study showed the percentages of U.S. adults who worked full-time, part-time, were unemployed, or who had given up looking for a job and were no longer in the work force, and it showed the average hourly wages for those who were employed. These data were grouped by literacy level--how well the interviewees responded to material written in English--and indicated that 40 to 44 million of the 191 million U.S. adults (21 to 23 percent of them) in the least literate group earned a yearly average of $2105 and about 50 million adults (25 to 28 percent of them) in the next-least literate of the five literacy groups earned a yearly average of $5225 at a time when the U.S. Census Bureau considered the poverty level threshold for an individual to be $7363 per year.[12]

The report of a follow-up study by the same group of researchers using a smaller database (19,714 interviewees) was released in 2006 that showed no statistically significant improvement in U.S. adult literacy.[13] These studies prove that a minimum of 46 and a maximum of 51 percent of U.S. adults read so poorly that they earn significantly below the threshold poverty level for an individual. The only reason we do not see that number of families in poverty is that most low-income families have more than one employed adult and almost all low-income families receive financial assistance from the government, family, friends, or charitable organizations.

Many U.S. citizens believe that the U.S. literacy rate is much higher than these reports would indicate. The World Fact Book prepared by the CIA[14] claims that the U.S. literacy rate is 99 percent, but defines literacy as being able to read and write when a person is 15 years old or older. A person who can only read a few hundred--or even a couple of thousand--simple words learned in the first four grades in school, is only marginally literate.

Jonathan Kozol, in his book Illiterate America, states that there may not be any intentional deception, but explains[15] that the census bureau reported literacy rates of 99 percent based on personal interviews of a relatively small portion of the population and on written responses to census bureau mailings. If the interviewees or written responders had completed fifth grade they were considered literate. In the 1970 census, for example, five percent had less than a fifth grade education. The census bureau considered eighty percent of those with less than a fifth grade education as being literate and reported a 99 percent literacy rate. In the 1980 and 1990 censuses, most of the census bureau calculations of literacy were based upon grade completion. They used written questionnaires and a small number of home visits and telephone interviews. If a respondent stated that they had completed less than five grades, they were asked if they could read and write, and their unsubstantiated answer was recorded as a fact. Kozol explains that this method of determining literacy is quite certain to underestimate illiteracy for the following reasons:

  • Illiterate people would not respond to written forms and their family members--also likely to be illiterate--would not either.
  • Illiterate people are less likely to have telephones than the general public, because of unemployment or low paying jobs.
  • Illiterate people may distrust anyone knocking on their door or calling on the telephone and seeking information because they are often hounded by bill collectors, salesmen, and others because of their financial condition and because they may have been cheated as a result of their illiteracy. Therefore they cannot be expected to give accurate answers to questions asked by census bureau workers they do not know, especially if the answers are embarrassing.
  • Grade level completion does not equal grade level competence.
  • Those who have no permanent home address, no telephone, no post office box, and no regular job--a condition shared by more than six million adults, most of whom are illiterate--cannot be found by the census bureau in time to be included in the count.


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 undesirable to be illiterate.[citation needed] At one time, a literate person was one who could sign his or her name. At other points, literacy was measured only by the ability to read and write Latin (regardless of a person's ability to read or write his or her vernacular), or by the ability to read the Bible. The benefit of clergy in common law systems became dependent on reading a particular passage. These concepts of literacy have much to do with the invention of the printing press, and it is noted that between 1500 and 1800, styles of reading changed. Briggs and Burke (2002) give examples of five types of reading changes [16]: The emergence of critical reading, as reading was once taken literally, dangerous reading, where reading was seen as dangerous in the hands of less educated groups such as women or 'the common people', creative reading, the application of content via the reader's individual paradigm, extensive reading, especially seen in the research of a particular topic, and private reading, where formatting of texts changed to embrace the notion of browsing. This privatization is an aspect of the rise of individualism.

Literacy has also been used as a way to sort populations and control who has access to power. Because literacy permits learning and communication that oral and sign language alone cannot, illiteracy has been enforced in some places as a way of preventing unrest or revolution. During the Civil War era in the United States, white citizens in many areas banned teaching slaves to read or write presumably understanding the power of literacy. In the years 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. In 1964, educator Paulo Freire was arrested, expelled, and exiled from his native Brazil because of his work in teaching Brazilian peasants to read.

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


India and China were advanced in literacy and made many scientific advancements. Many universities like Nalanda provided education to pupils and scholars from all around the world.

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 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.

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

In New England, the literacy rate was over 50 percent during the first half of the 17th century, and it rose to 70 percent by 1710. By the time of the American Revolution, it was around 90 percent. This is seen by some as a side effect of the Puritan belief in the importance of Bible reading.

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. The 1686 church law (kyrkolagen) of the Kingdom of Sweden (which at the time included all of modern Sweden, Finland, and Estonia) enforced literacy 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.

Online Video: The Spread, Rise and Fall of Early Literacy

Teaching literacy

Literacy comprises a number of subskills, including phonological awareness, decoding, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Mastering each of these subskills is necessary for students to become proficient readers.

Alphabetic principle and English orthography

Beginning readers must understand the concept of the alphabetic principle in order to master basic reading skills. A writing system is said to be alphabetic if it uses symbols to represent individual language sounds. [17] In contrast, logographic writing systems (such as Chinese) use a symbol to represent an entire word, and syllabic writing systems (such as Japanese kana) use a symbol to represent a single syllable.

Alphabetic writing systems vary in complexity. For example, Spanish is an alphabetic writing system that has a nearly perfect one-to-one correspondence of symbols to individual sounds. In Spanish, most of the time words are spelled the way they sound, that is, word spellings are almost always regular. English, on the other hand, is far more complex in that it does not have a one-to-one correspondence between symbols and sounds. English has individual sounds that can be represented by more than one symbol or symbol combination. For example, the long |a| sound can be represented by a-consonant-e as in ate, -ay as in hay, -ea as in steak, -ey as in they, -ai as in pain, and -ei as in vein. In addition, there are many words with irregular spelling and many homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and often different spellings as well). Pollack Pickeraz (1963) asserted that there are 45 phonemes in the English language, and that the 26 letters of the English alphabet can represent the 45 phonemes in about 350 ways. [18]

It should be noted that the irregularity of English spelling is largely an artifact of how the language developed. English is a Germanic language; however, it has substantial influences from Latin, Greek, and French, among others. Over its history, English adopted vocabulary from many languages, and the imported words usually follow the spelling patterns of their language of origin. Advanced phonics instruction includes studying words according to their origin, and how to determine the correct spelling of a word using its language of origin.

Clearly, the complexity of English orthography makes it more difficult for children to learn decoding and encoding rules, and more difficult for teachers to teach them. However, effective word recognition relies on the basic understanding that letters represent the sounds of spoken language, that is, word recognition relies on the reader's understanding of the alphabetic principle.


Phonics is an instructional technique that teaches readers to attend to the letters or groups of letters that make up words. So, to read the word throat using phonics, each grapheme (a letter or letters that represent one sound) is examined separately: th says /θ/, r says /ɹ/, oa says /oʊ/, and t says /t/. There are various methods for teaching phonics. A common way to teach this is to have the novice reader pronounce each individual sound and "blend" them to pronounce the whole word. This is called synthetic phonics.

There are many programs that use this approach. A widely-known program is SRA/McGraw-Hill's DISTAR program (now called Reading Mastery). The Orton-Gillingham method, Lindamood-Bell Phoneme Sequencing Program, and the Wilson reading system are other phonics programs. British educator Nellie Dale is credited with creating one of the earliest programs designed to teach basic reading skills, in the late 19th century.[19]

In addition to teaching phonological awareness and sound-symbol correspondence, comprehensive phonics programs also include instruction in irregular words, the 6 syllable types, morphology (root words, prefixes, suffixes, etc) and word origin.[citation needed]

Whole language

Because English spelling has so many irregularities and exceptions, advocates of whole language recommend that novice readers should learn a little about the individual letters in words, especially the consonants and the "short vowels." Teachers provide this knowledge opportunistically, in the context of stories that feature many instances of a particular letter. This is known as "embedded phonics." Children use their letter-sound knowledge in combination with context to read new and difficult words.[20]

Programs that use a whole language approach include Reading Recovery and Guided reading.[21]

Which approach is better?

The answer to this question is often debated. Scientific research in reading has tended to support the value of teaching phonics, although reading experts from all perspectives believe that time spent reading--a key element of whole language--is very important. Advocates of whole language have dismissed this scientific research for many different reasons. One common complaint is that scientific education researchers rely on randomized studies (similar in design to those done in medicine) and do not value descriptive research that has demonstrated the value of whole language approaches. In the United States, the National Reading Panel was convened in an attempt to determine which approach was best. It found that phonics was more effective than embedded phonics or no phonics, but it only used experimental and quasi-experimental research (it did not include qualitative research), so the whole language community remained skeptical of its conclusions. The debate continues.[citation needed] Consideration should be given to alternative methods of teaching reading since neither the phonics method, the whole word or whole language method, nor any combination of them is completely successful with every student. See Reading education.

Why learning to read is hard

Many children of average and above average intelligence experience difficulty when learning to read. According to Dr. Grover Whitehurst, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, learning to read is difficult for several reasons. First, reading requires the mastery of a code that maps human speech sounds to written symbols, and this code is not readily apparent or easy to understand. Second, reading is not a natural process; it was invented by humans fairly recently in our development. The human brain is wired for spoken language, but it is not wired to process the code of written language. Third, confusion can be introduced at the time of instruction by teachers who do not understand what the code is or how it needs to be taught. [22]

One reason that mastery of the code that maps human speech sounds to written symbols is so difficult is that English spelling contains so many irregularities and exceptions to the rules. However, when English spelling rules take into account syllable structure, phonetics, and accents, there are literally dozens of rules that are 75% or more reliable. [23]

Some phonics spelling advocates claim that English is more than 80% phonetic.[attribution needed] This is true is more than one grapheme (letter) is allowed per phoneme; otherwise, English is a little more than 20 percent phonetic.

In addition, Dr. Diane McGuinness’ book Why Our Children Can’t Read explains the complex logic that is required to learn to read English. Unlike many alphabetic languages, there are tens of thousands of different syllables in English, with sixteen different syllable patterns in English: (C=consonant, V=vowel) CV, CCV, CCCV, CVC, CCVC, CCCVC, CVCC, CVCCC, CCVCC, CCVCCC, CCCVCCC, CCCVCC, VCCC, VCC, VC, and V. There are two or more syllables in most English words.[24] Each syllable can have one of the sixteen syllable patterns. If each vowel and each consonant in each of these patterns consistently represented the same phoneme (one-to-one mapping), there would be nothing in the logic of these syllables that would be beyond the abilities of most four- or five-year-olds. But they do not. English spelling also has one-to-many and many-to-one mapping. This requires a type of logic that most children do not develop until they are eleven or twelve years old.

The types of logic required for one-to-many and many-to-one mapping are: (1) the logic of “classes” (categories where objects or events that are similar are grouped) and “relations” (where objects share some features but not all features, e.g. all poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles) and (2) “propositional logic,” which involves combining both the classes and relations types of logic. This requires the ability to think of the same item in more than one way at the same time. These combinations require the use of relational terms such as “and,” “or,” “not,” “if—then,” and “if and only if” in formal statements of propositional logic, e.g. if an H follows the T, then say /TH/ as in thin or then; but if any other letter or no letter follows the T, then say /T/ as in top or ant.[25]

It takes most students learning to read English at least two to two-and-one-half years to learn enough words so that they can read most written material easily enough that they enjoy reading, read often, and thereby become fluent readers.[citation needed]

Reading comprehension

Many educators in the USA believe that children need to learn to analyze text (comprehend it) even before they can read it on their own, and comprehension instruction generally begins in pre-Kindergarten or Kindergarten. But other US educators consider this reading approach to be completely backward for very young children, arguing that the children must learn how to decode the words in a story through phonics before they can analyze the story itself.

During the last century comprehension lessons usually comprised students answering teachers' questions, writing responses to questions on their own, or both. The whole group version of this practice also often included "round robin reading," wherein teachers called on individual students to read a portion of the text (and sometimes following a set order). In the last quarter of the 20th century, evidence accumulated that the read-test methods assessed comprehension more than they taught it. The associated practice of "round robin" reading has also been questioned and eliminated by many educators.

Instead of using the prior read-test method, research studies have concluded that there are much more effective ways to teach comprehension. Much work has been done in the area of teaching novice readers a bank of "reading strategies," or tools to interpret and analyze text.[26] There is not a definitive set of strategies, but common ones include summarizing what you have read, monitoring your reading to make sure it is still making sense, and analyzing the structure of the text (e.g., the use of headings in science text). Some programs teach students how to self monitor whether they are understanding and provide students with tools for fixing comprehension problems.

Instruction in comprehension strategy use often involves the gradual release of responsibility, wherein teachers initially explain and model strategies. Over time, they give students more and more responsibility for using the strategies until they can use them independently. This technique is generally associated with the idea of self-regulation and reflects social cognitive theory, originally conceptualized by Albert Bandura.

Broader and complementary definitions

Traditional definitions of literacy consider the ability to "read, write, spell, listen, and speak."[27]

Some have argued that the definition of literacy should be expanded. For example, in the United States, the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have added "visually representing" to the traditional list of competencies. Similarly, in Scotland, 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."[28]

A basic literacy standard in many societies is the ability to read the newspaper. Increasingly, communication in commerce or society in general requires the ability to use computers and other digital technologies. [29] Since the 1990s, when the Internet came into wide use in the United States, some have asserted that the definition of literacy should include the ability to use tools such as web browsers, word processing programs, and text messages. Similar expanded skill sets have been called multimedia literacy, computer literacy, information literacy, and technacy.[30]

"Arts literacy" programs exist in some places in the United States,[31] Australia, Canada, and Finland.Template:Facts

Other genres under study by academia include critical literacy, media literacy, and health literacy[32]

Some scholarsTemplate:Weasel-inline argue that literacy necessarily includes the cultural, political, and historical contexts of the community in which communication takes place.[33]

See also

Articles about teaching literacy:

Articles about diverse types of literacy:

International statistics:


  2. UNESCO Institute for Statistics: Literacy rates, youth (15-24) and adult (15+), by region and gender (September 2006 Assessment)
  3. Literacy Facts University of Hamburg
  4. Literacy, Indian Census
  5. The Quiet Revolution IMF
  6. Population, Health and Human Well-being
  7. India special, New Scientist
  8. Kerela literacy
  9. Literacy, Census Statistics
  10. Economic Survey 2004-05, Economic Division, Ministry of Finance, Government of India, quoting UNDP Human Development Report 2004.
  15. Jonathan Kozol, Illiterate America (New York: New American Library, 1985), pp. 37-39
  16. Briggs and Burke, 2002, A Social History of the Media.
  17. Wren, Sebastian. Phonics Rules, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL), 1999., retrieved July 7, 2007.
  18. Ibid
  19. Dale, Nellie. (1898) On the Teaching English Reading. J M Dent & Co, London; Dale, Nellie. (1902) Further Notes on the Teaching of English Reading. George Philip & Son Ltd, London.
  20. Tompkins, G. 2006. Literacy for the 21st Century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  21. Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G.S. 1996, Guiding Readers and Writers Grades 3 – 6: Teaching Comprehension, Genre and Content Literacy.
  22. Dr. Grover Whitehurst, Assistant Secretary, U.S. ED Department - Dir., Institute of Education Sciences. Children of the Code interview. Retrieved June 30, 2007.
  23. Abbott, M. (2000). Identifying reliable generalizations for spelling words: The importance of multilevel analysis. The Elementary School Journal 101(2), 233-245.
  24. Diane McGuinness, Why Our Children Can’t Read (New York: Touchstone, 1997), p. 78.
  25. Diane McGuinness, Why Our Children Can’t Read (New York: Touchstone, 1997) pp. 156-169
  26. Pressley, M. (2006). Reading Instruction That Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching. New York: Guilford Press.
  27. Moats, L.C. Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers, p. 3. Paul H. Brookes Co., 2000
  28. Curriculum Framework for Adult Literacy in Scotland (pdf)
  29. Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey, OECD 2000. PDF
  30. Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.
  31. Kennedy Center Partners in Education, Washington, D.C.; ABC school in South Carolina; A Plus schools in a half dozen states; Value Plus in Tennessee
  32. Zarcadoolas, C., Pleasant, A., & Greer, D. (2006). Advancing health literacy: A framework for understanding and action. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
  33. Knobel, M. (1999). Everyday literacies: Students, discourse, and social practice. New York: Lang; Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideologies in Discourses. Philadelphia: Falmer.

External links

Government entities related to literacy

Major non-profit organizations related to literacy

Other non-profit organizations related to literacy

Further information on literacy

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