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Title: Literacy  
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Subject: Phonics, Reading (process), Transliteracy, Education in China, Education in Mongolia
Collection: Applied Linguistics, Knowledge, Literacy, Reading (Process), Socioeconomics, Writing
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World map indicating literacy by country in 2013 (2013 UN Human Development Report and Individual statistics departments) Grey = no data
World illiteracy halved between 1970 and 2005.

Literacy is the ability to read and write.[1] Literacy encompasses a complex set of abilities to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture for personal and community development. In a technological society, the concept of literacy is expanding to include the media and electronic text, in addition to alphabetic and number systems. These abilities vary in different social and cultural contexts according to need, demand and education.

The primary sense of literacy still represents the lifelong, intellectual process of gaining meaning from a critical interpretation of the written or printed text. The key to all literacy is reading development, a progression of skills that begins with the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words, and culminates in the deep understanding of text. Reading development involves a range of complex language underpinnings including awareness of speech sounds (phonology), spelling patterns (orthography), word meaning (semantics), grammar (syntax) and patterns of word formation (morphology), all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension. Once these skills are acquired, the reader can attain full language literacy, which includes the abilities to approach printed material with critical analysis, inference and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information and insights from text as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought.[2] The inability to do so is called illiteracy or analphabetism.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as 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 in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society".[3]


  • History 1
    • Origins of literacy 1.1
    • Origins of the alphabet 1.2
    • Ancient and medieval literacy 1.3
    • Literacy in Europe 1.4
      • England 1.4.1
      • Wales 1.4.2
      • Continental Europe 1.4.3
    • Literacy in North America 1.5
      • Canada 1.5.1
        • Colonial days (1600s–1762)
        • From the British Conquest (1763) to Confederation (1867)
        • 1868–1986
        • Direct systematic measures of literacy in Canada, 1987 to present
      • Mexico 1.5.2
      • United States 1.5.3
        • Cultural and westernized literacy for Native Americans in the United States
    • Literacy in South America 1.6
    • Literacy in Africa 1.7
      • Algeria 1.7.1
      • Botswana 1.7.2
      • Burkina Faso 1.7.3
      • Egypt 1.7.4
      • Djibouti 1.7.5
      • Eritrea 1.7.6
      • Ethiopia 1.7.7
      • Guinea 1.7.8
      • Kenya 1.7.9
      • Mali 1.7.10
      • Niger 1.7.11
      • Senegal 1.7.12
      • Somalia 1.7.13
      • Sierra Leone 1.7.14
      • Uganda 1.7.15
      • Zimbabwe 1.7.16
    • Literacy in Asia 1.8
      • Afghanistan 1.8.1
      • China 1.8.2
      • India 1.8.3
      • Laos 1.8.4
      • Pakistan 1.8.5
      • Philippines 1.8.6
  • Literacy in the 21st century 2
  • Economic impact 3
  • Broader and complementary definitions 4
  • Teaching literacy 5
  • Public library efforts to promote literacy 6
    • In the United States 6.1
    • Child literacy 6.2
      • April 30 6.2.1
    • United States 6.3
  • Literacy among youth 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


Illiteracy rate in France in the 18th and 19th centuries

Origins of literacy

Literacy is thought to have first emerged with the development of numeracy and computational devices as early as 8,000 BCE. According to Stephen Chrisomalis, independent script development occurred at four times in human history in Mesopotamia, Egypt, lowland Mesoamerica, and China.[4]

The earliest forms of written communication originated in Sumer, located in southern Mesopotamia in 8000 BCE. Peter Easton states, during this era, literacy was "a largely functional matter, propelled by the need to manage the new quantities of information and the new type of governance created by trade and large scale production".[5] Denise Schmandt-Besserat argues that writing systems in Mesopotamia first emerged from a recording system in which people used impressed token markings to manage trade and agricultural production.[6] The token system served as a precursor to early cuneiform writing once people began simply recording information on clay tablets. According to Chrisomalis, proto-cuneiform texts exhibit not only numerical signs, but also ideograms depicting objects being counted.[4]

Egyptian hieroglyphs emerged from 3300-3100 BCE and depicted royal iconography that emphasized power amongst other elites. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system was the first notation system to have phonetic values.

Writing in lowland Mesoamerica was first put into practice by the Olmec and Zapotec civilizations in 900-400 BCE. These civilizations used glyphic writing and bar-and-dot numerical notation systems for purposes related to royal iconography and calendar systems.

The earliest written notations in China date back to the Shang Dynasty in 1200 BCE. These systematic notations were found inscribed on bones and recorded sacrifices made, tributes received, and animals hunted, which were activities of the elite. These oracle-bone inscriptions were the early ancestors of modern Chinese script and contained logosyllabic script and numerals.

These examples indicate that early acts of literacy were closely tied to power and chiefly used for management practices.

Origins of the alphabet

According to social anthropologist Jack Goody, there are two interpretations that regard the origin of the alphabet. Many classical scholars, such as the renowned historian Ignace Gelb, credit the Ancient Greeks for creating the first alphabetic system (c. 750 BCE) that used distinctive signs for consonants and vowels. But Goody contests, “The importance of Greek culture of the subsequent history of Western Europe has led to an over-emphasis, by classicists and others, on the addition of specific vowel signs to the set of consonantal ones that had been developed earlier in Western Asia”.[7]

Thus, many scholars argue that the Western Semites of Northern Canaan (modern-day Syria) invented the consonantal alphabet as early as 1500 BCE. Much of this theory’s development is credited to English archeologist Flinders Petrie, who, in 1905, came across a series of Canaanite inscriptions located in the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem. Ten years later, English Egyptologist Alan Gardiner reasoned that these letters contain an alphabet, as well as references to the Canaanite goddess Asherah. In 1948, William F. Albright deciphered the text using additional evidence that had been discovered subsequent to Goody’s findings. This included a series of inscriptions from Ugarit, discovered in 1929 by French archaeologist Claude Schaeffer. Some of these inscriptions were mythological texts (written in an early Canaanite dialect) that consisted of a 32-letter cuneiform consonantal alphabet.

Another significant discovery was made in 1953 when three arrowheads were uncovered, each containing identical Canaanite inscriptions from twelfth century BCE. According to Frank Moore Cross, these inscriptions consisted of alphabetic signs that originated during the transitional development from pictographic script to a linear alphabet. Moreover, he asserts, “These inscriptions also provided clues to extend the decipherment of earlier and later alphabetic texts”.[8]

The consonantal system of the Canaanite language inspired alphabetical developments in subsequent languages. During the Late Bronze Age, successor alphabets appeared throughout the Mediterranean region and sub-developed into three languages: Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic.

According to Goody, these cuneiform scripts may have influenced the development of the Greek alphabet several centuries later. Historically, the Greeks contended that their language was modeled after the Phoenicians. However, many Semitic scholars now believe that Ancient Greek is more consistent with an early form Canaanite that was used c. 1100 BCE. While the earliest Greek inscriptions are dated c. eighth century BCE, epigraphical comparisons to Proto-Canaanite suggest that the Greeks may have adopted the language as early as 1100 BCE, and later “added in five characters to represent vowels”.[9]

Phoenician, which is considered to contain the first “linear alphabet”, rapidly spread to the Mediterranean port cities in northern Canaan.[8] Some archeologists believe that Phoenician scripture had some influence on the developments of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets based on the fact that these languages evolved during the same time period, share similar features, and are commonly categorized into the same language group.[10]

When the Israelites migrated to Canaan between 1200 and 1001 BCE, they also adopted a variation of the Canaanite alphabet. Baruch ben Neriah, Jeremiah’s scribe, used this alphabet to create the later scripts of the Old Testament. The Early Hebrew alphabet was prominent in the Mediterranean region until Assyrian rulers exiled the Jews to Babylon in the sixth century BCE. It was then that the new language (“Square Hebrew”) emerged and the older language rapidly died out.[9]

The Aramaic alphabet also emerged sometime between 1200 and 1001 BCE. As the Bronze Age collapsed, the Aramaeans moved into Canaan and Phoenician territories and adopted their scripts. Although early evidence of this writing is scarce, archeologists have uncovered a wide range of later Aramaic texts, written as early as the seventh century BCE. Due to its longevity and prevalence in the region, Achaemenid rulers eventually adopted it as a “diplomatic language”.[11] The modern Aramaic alphabet rapidly spread east to the Kingdom of Nabataea, then to Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula, eventually making its way to Africa. Aramaic Merchants carried older variations of the language as far as India, where it later influenced the development of Brahmi scripture. It also led to the developments of Arabic, Pahlavi (an Iranian adaptation), “as well as for a range of alphabets used by early Turkish and Mongol tribes in Siberia, Mongolia and Turkestan”.[12]

The Aramaic language eventually died out with spread of Islam and its influence of Arabic.

Ancient and medieval literacy

Until recently it was thought that the majority of people were illiterate in ancient times. However, recent work has challenged this long held notion. Anthony DiRenzo asserts that Roman society was “a civilization based on the book and the register”, and "no one, either free or slave, could afford to be illiterate".[13] Similarly Dupont points out, "The written word was all around them, in both public and private life: laws, calendars, regulations at shrines, and funeral epitaphs were engraved in stone or bronze. The Republic amassed huge archives of reports on every aspect of public life".[14]

When the Western Roman Empire fell apart literacy became a distinguishing mark of the elite, and communications skills were politically important.[15]

In the late fourth century the Desert Father Pachomius expected literacy of a candidate for admission to his monasteries:

they shall give him twenty Psalms or two of the Apostles' epistles or some other part of Scripture. And if he is illiterate he shall go at the first, third and sixth hours to someone who can teach and has been appointed for him. He shall stand before him and learn very studiously and with all gratitude. The fundamentals of a syllable, the verbs and nouns shall all be written for him and even if he does not want to he shall be compelled to read.[16]

Literacy in Europe


In 12th and 13th century England, the ability to recite a particular passage from the Bible in Latin entitled a common law defendant to the so-called benefit of clergy—i.e., trial before an ecclesiastical court, where sentences were more lenient, instead of a secular one, where hanging was a likely sentence. Thus literate lay defendants often claimed the right to benefit of clergy, while an illiterate person who had memorized the psalm used as the literacy test, Psalm 51 ("O God, have mercy upon me..."), could also claim benefit of clergy.[17]


Formal higher education in the arts and sciences in

  • UNESCO Literacy Portal
  • UNESCO Effective Literacy Practice Database
  • Literacy at DMOZ
  • Literacy Assessment
  • The National Strategies for Primary Literacy
  • The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives
  • National Literacy Trust
  • List of countries by literacy rate List of Countries by literacy rate.

External links

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  2. ^ Margie Gillis, Ed.D., President, Literacy How, Inc., and Research Affiliate, Haskins Laboratories at Yale University; Sally Grimes, Ed.M., Executive Director, Literate Nation and Founder, Grimes Reading Institute; Cinthia Haan, Author and Chair, The Haan Foundation for Children and President, Power4Kids Reading Initiative; Peggy McCardle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Louisa Moats, Ed.D., President, Moats Associates Consulting, Inc.; Anthony Pedriana, Author and retired urban schoolteacher and principal; Susan Smartt, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, Vanderbilt University; Catherine Snow, Ph.D., Author, Researcher and Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; Cheryl Ward, M.S.M., C.A.L.P., Co-founder of Wisconsin Reading Coalition and academic language practitioner; Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D., Author and Director, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts University.
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See also

Programs have also been successfully implemented in regions that have an ongoing conflict or in a post-conflict stage. The Youth Education Pack program has been successfully employed in 13 post-conflict countries since 2003. The program uses a 12 month training cycle were learners can select one area in vocational training as well as required courses in agriculture, life skills, literacy and numeracy. The program organizers believe that daily routines and other wise predictable activities help the transition from war to peace. Results have shown that active participation and management of the members of the program are important to the success of the program. These programs and similar programs all feature integrated basic education, e.g. literacy, numeracy, scientific knowledge, local history and culture, native and mainstream language skills, and apprenticeships. [96]

There are also programs that focus on improving the literacy rate within urban youth. In Brazil educators with the Axé project within the city of Salvador Bahía attempt to improve literacy rates among urban youth, especially youth living on the streets, through the use of music and dances of the local culture. They are encouraged to continue their education and become professionals.

There are several programs to attempting to improve the literacy rate among youth in developing countries. One of these programs is the Education Model for Life and Work program which aims to improve the education opportunities to allow rural youth who don't have a primary or secondary education that allows learners to be recognized as having either a 6th or 9th grade, end of elementary and junior high school respectively, education levels of understanding of literacy and basic skills training.

Developing nations put together have as many as 175 million youth who are considered illiterate, with many being women. Though the younger generations are generally better educated than their parents, in developing nations at least 60 percent of these young people are not enrolled in education/training nor have regular employment. Youth in sub-Saharan Africa have less education opportunities to become literate and may not obtain the necessary education because of being needed at home to work, e.g. farming, taking care of siblings, and twice as likely to drop out of school compared to youth of wealthier families.

Literacy among youth

The Hillsborough Literacy Council (HLC), operating under the Florida Literacy Coalition, a statewide organization, strives to improve the literacy ability of adults in Hillsborough County, Florida. Working since 1986, the HLC is "committed to improving literacy by empowering adults through education".[95] The HLC also provides tutoring for English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). Approximately 120,000 adults in Hillsborough County are illiterate or read below the fourth-grade level. Through one-on-one tutoring, the organization works to help adult students reach at least the fifth-grade level. Approximately 95,000 adults living in Hillsborough County do not speak English; volunteers in the organization typically work with small groups of non-English speaking students to help practice their English conversation skills at any time.

Another successful literacy effort is the BoulderReads! program in Boulder, Colorado. The program recognized the difficulty that students had in obtaining child care while attending tutoring sessions, and joined with the University of Colorado to provide reading buddies to the children of students. Reading Buddies matches children of adult literacy students with college students who meet with them once a week throughout the semester for an hour and a half. The college students receive course credit, ensuring the quality and reliability of their time.[94] Each Reading Buddies session focuses primarily on the college student reading aloud with the child. This helps the child gain interest in books and feel comfortable reading aloud. Time is also spent on word games, writing letters, or searching for books in the library. Throughout the semester the pair work on writing and illustrating a book together. The college student’s grade is partly dependent on the completion of the book. Although Reading Buddies began primarily as an answer to the lack of child care for literacy students, it has evolved into another aspect of the program.[94] While the children are not participants in the tutoring program, they do show marked improvement in their reading and writing skills throughout the semester, due in part to the admiration and respect they gain for their college reading buddy.

After the training, the tutors invest at least 50 hours a year to tutoring their student. [90] in the community. An adult who learns to read impacts not just himself but the whole community: he becomes an example to his children and grandchildren, and can better serve his community. The mission of READ/Orange County is to "create a more literate community by providing diversified services of the highest quality to all who seek them." Potential tutors train during an extensive 23-hour tutor training workshop in which they learn the philosophy, techniques and tools they will need to work with adult learns.ripple effect The program operates on the basis that an adult who learns to read creates a [90] READ/Orange County, initiated in 1992 by the

Programs have been instituted in public libraries across the United States in an attempt to improve literacy rates. Some examples are listed below.

The American Library Association promotes literacy through the work of the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services. This committee’s charge includes ensuring equitable access to information and advocating for adult new and non-readers.[92] The Public Library Association recognizes the importance of early childhood in the role of literacy development and created, in collaboration with the Association for Library Service to Children, Every Child Ready to Read @your library in order to inform and support parents and caregivers in their efforts to raise children who become literate adults.[93]

United States


Dia! Which stand for Diversity in Action and is also known as "El Dia de los Ninos/El dia de los libros (Children's Day/Book Day)" is a program which celebrates the importance of reading to children from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Dia! is celebrated every year on April 30 in schools, libraries, and homes and this website provides tools and programs to encourage reading in children. Parents, caregivers, and educators can even start a book club.

April 30

Public libraries continue to promote literacy among families, especially toward those with young children. Most public libraries have story time for young children, book clubs for teenagers, and activities and games related to literature. Parental involvement is important aspect for literacy. Parents who read to or encourage reading in their children are responsible for their child's love for reading as he or she gets older.

Child literacy

The public library has long been a force promoting literacy in many countries.[88] In the United States, the release of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) report in 2005 revealed that approximately 14% of adults function at the lowest level of literacy; 29% of adults function at the basic functional literacy level and cannot help their children with homework beyond the first few grades.[89] The lack of reading skills hinders adults from reaching their full potential. They might have difficulty getting and maintaining a job, providing for their families, or even reading a story to their children. For adults, the library might be the only source of a literacy program.[90]

In the United States

Public library efforts to promote literacy

In Australia a number of State governments have introduced Reading Challenges to improve literacy. The Premier's Reading Challenge in South Australia, launched by Premier Mike Rann has one of the highest participation rates in the world for reading challenges. It has been embraced by more than 95% of public, private and religious schools.[87]

In a 2012 proposal, it has been claimed that reading can be acquired naturally if print is constantly available at an early age in the same manner as spoken language.[86] If an appropriate form of written text is made available before formal schooling begins, reading should be learned inductively, emerge naturally, and with no significant negative consequences. This proposal challenges the commonly held belief that written language requires formal instruction and schooling. Its success would change current views of literacy and schooling. Using developments in behavioral science and technology, an interactive system (Technology Assisted Reading Acquisition, TARA) would enable young pre-literate children to accurately perceive and learn properties of written language by simple exposure to the written form.

There are any number of approaches to teaching literacy; each is shaped by its informing assumptions about what literacy is and how it is best learned by students. Phonics instruction, for example, focuses on reading at the level of the word. It teaches readers to observe and interpret the letters or groups of letters that make up words. A common method of teaching phonics is synthetic phonics, in which a novice reader pronounces each individual sound and "blends" them to pronounce the whole word. Another approach is embedded phonics instruction, used more often in whole language reading instruction, in which novice readers learn about the individual letters in words on a just-in-time, just-in-place basis that is tailored to meet each student's reading and writing learning needs.[83] That is, teachers provide phonics instruction opportunistically, within the context of stories or student writing that feature many instances of a particular letter or group of letters. Embedded instruction combines letter-sound knowledge with the use of meaningful context to read new and difficult words.[85] Techniques such as directed listening and thinking activities can be used to aid children in learning how to read and reading comprehension.

From this same perspective, readers of alphabetic languages must understand the alphabetic principle to master basic reading skills. For this purpose a writing system is "alphabetic" if it uses symbols to represent individual language sounds,[83] though the degree of correspondence between letters and sounds varies between alphabetic languages. Syllabic writing systems (such as Japanese kana) use a symbol to represent a single syllable, and logographic writing systems (such as Chinese) use a symbol to represent a morpheme.[84]

Teaching English literacy in the United States is dominated by a focus on a set of discrete decoding skills. From this perspective, literacy—or, rather, reading—comprises a number of subskills that can be taught to students. These skill sets include phonological awareness, phonics (decoding), fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Mastering each of these subskills is necessary for students to become proficient readers.[82]

Teaching literacy

Given that a large part of the benefits of literacy can be obtained by having access to a literate person in the household, some recent literature in economics, starting with the work of Kaushik Basu and James Foster, distinguishes between a "proximate illiterate" and an "isolated illiterate". The former refers to an illiterate person who lives in a household with literates and the latter to an illiterate who lives in a household of all illiterates. What is of concern is that many people in poor nations are not just illiterates but isolated illiterates.

Other genres under study by academia include critical literacy, media literacy, ecological literacy and health literacy[81] With the increasing emphasis on evidence-based decision making, and the use of statistical graphics and information, statistical literacy is becoming a very important aspect of literacy in general. The International Statistical Literacy Project is dedicated to the promotion of statistical literacy among all members of society.

"Arts literacy" programs exist in some places in the United States.[79] Visual literacy also includes the ability to understand visual forms of communication such as body language, pictures, maps, and video.[80] Evolving definitions of literacy often include all the symbol systems relevant to a particular community.

A basic literacy standard in many places is the ability to read the newspaper. Increasingly, communication in commerce and in general requires the ability to use computers and other digital technologies. 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 technological literacy.[76][77] Some scholars propose the idea multiliteracies which includes Functional Literacy, Critical Literacy, and Rhetorical Literacy.[78]

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, 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".[73] It is argued that literacy includes the cultural, political, and historical contexts of the community in which communication takes place.[74][75]

Traditionally, literacy is ability to use written language actively and passively; one definition of literacy is the ability to "read, write, spell, listen, and speak".[66] Since the 1980s, some have argued that literacy is ideological, which means that literacy always exists in a context, in tandem with the values associated with that context.[67][68] Prior work viewed literacy as existing autonomously.[69][70][71][72]

Broader and complementary definitions

In 2009, the National Adult Literacy agency (NALA) in Ireland commissioned a cost benefit analysis of adult literacy training. This concluded that there were economic gains for the individuals, the companies they worked for, and the Exchequer, as well as the economy and the country as a whole—for example, increased GDP. The annual income gain per person per level increase on the Irish ten level National Qualifications Framework was and the annual gain to the Exchequer, in terms of reduced social welfare transfers and increased tax payments, was [65]

In Kerala, India, for example, female and child mortality rates declined dramatically in the 1960s, when girls schooled according to the education reforms after 1948 began to raise families. 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.

Korotayev and coauthors have revealed a rather significant correlation between the level of literacy in the early 19th century and successful modernization and economic breakthroughs in the late 20th century, as "literate people could be characterized by a greater innovative-activity level, which provides opportunities for modernization, development, and economic growth".[64]

Many policy analysts consider literacy rates as a crucial measure of the value of a region's human capital. For example, literate people can be more easily trained than illiterate people - and generally have a higher socioeconomic status;[63] thus they enjoy better health and employment prospects. Literacy increases job opportunities and access to higher education.

Economic impact

Young school girls in Paktia Province of Afghanistan

Literacy in the 21st century

The DepEd, CHED, and other academic institutions encourage children to improve literacy skills and knowledge. The government has a program of literacy teaching starting in kindergarten. New reforms are being brought in shifting to a K-12 system which will teach children their regional languages before English, as opposed to the ten-year basic education program which teaches English and Filipino, the country's two official languages, from Grade 1.

After World War II, the Philippines had the highest literacy rates in Asia. It nearly achieved universal literacy once again in the 1980s and 1990s. Ever since then, the literacy rate has plummeted only to start regaining a few percentage years back.

The Americans introduced the public schools system to the country which drove literacy rates up. English became the lingua franca in the Philippines. It was only during a brief period in the Japanese occupation of the Philippines that the Japanese were able to teach their language in the Philippines and teach the children their written language.

During the Spanish colonization of the islands, reading materials were destroyed to a far much less extent compared to the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The Spaniards tried to rub literacy in the islands to prevent the islanders to unite. Education and literacy was introduced only to the Peninsulares and remained a privilege until the Americans came.

Early chroniclers, who came during the first Spanish expeditions to the islands, noted the proficiency of some of the natives, especially the chieftain and local kings, in Sanskrit, Old Javanese, Old Malay,and several other languages.[61][62]

Early Filipinos devised and used their own system of writings from 300 BC, which derived from the Brahmic family of scripts of Ancient India. Baybayin became the most widespread of these derived scripts by the 11th century.

Laguna Copperplate Inscription (c. 900), a thin copperplate document measuring less than 8x12 inches in size, shows heavy Hindu-Malayan cultural influences present in the Philippines during the 10th Century.

In the Philippines, it is assumed that before the Spanish colonization, the natives of the Philippine islands were universally literate that all can read and write in their own respective languages.


The data of the survey shows that in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, primary school survival rate is 67 percent which is lower than the national average of 70 percent. Furthermore, gender gap also exists with only 65 percent of girls’ survival rate compared to that of boys which is 68 percent. Per-student education expenditure in primary level (age 5-9) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is Rs 8,638. In Sindh, primary school survival rate is 63percent, with a gender gap of only 67 percent of girls’ survival rate compared to 60 percent for boys. Per student education expenditure in primary level (age 5-9) in Sindh is Rs 5,019. Nagata made reference to the survey report and mentioned that the most common reason in Pakistan for children (both boys and girls) of age 10 to 18 years leaving school before completing primary grade is “the child not willing to go to school”, which may be related to quality and learning outcome. She said, however, and sadly, for the girls living in rural communities the second highest reason for dropout is “parents did not allow” which might be related to prejudice and cultural norm against girls.

However, she also emphasised on the need to do more to improve literacy in the country and said, “The proportion of population in Pakistan lacking basic reading and writing is too high. This is a serious obstacle for individual fulfillment, to the development of societies, and to mutual understanding between peoples.” Referring to the recent national survey carried out by the Ministry of Education, Trainings and Standards in Higher Education with support of UNESCO, UNICEF, and provincial and areas departments of education, Nagata pointed out that, in Pakistan, although primary school survival rate is 70 percent, gender gap still exists with only 68 percent of girls’ survival rate compared to 71 percent for boys. Specifically in the case of Punjab, she said, primary school survival rate today is better with 76 percent, but not without a gender gap of 8 percent points with 72 percent girls’ survival rate compared to 80 percent for boys. She also pointed out that average per student spending in primary level (age 5-9) was better in Punjab: Rs 6,998, compared to the national average. In Balochistan, although almost the same amount (Rs 6,985) as in Punjab is spent per child, the primary school survival rate is only 53 percent. Girls’ survival rate is slightly better with 54 percent than that of boys which is 52 percent.

In Pakistan, the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) aims to bring literacy to adults, especially women. ISLAMABAD - UNESCO Islamabad Director Kozue Kay Nagata has said, “Illiteracy in Pakistan has fallen over two decades, thanks to the government and people of Pakistan for their efforts working toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals”. “Today, 70 percent of Pakistani youths can read and write. In 20 years, illiterate population has been reduced significantly”, she said while speaking at a function held in connection with International Literacy Day.


Big Brother Mouse has also created village reading rooms, and published books for adult readers about subjects such as Buddhism, health, and baby care.[60]

A literacy project in Laos addresses this by using what it calls "books that make literacy fun!" The project, Big Brother Mouse, publishes colorful, easy-to-read books, then delivers them by holding book parties at rural schools. Some of the books are modeled on successful western books by authors such as Dr. Seuss; the most popular, however, are traditional Lao fairy tales. Two popular collections of folktales were written by Siphone Vouthisakdee, who comes from a village where only five children finished primary school.[59]

Obstacles to literacy vary by country and culture as writing systems, quality of education, availability of written material, competition from other sources (television, video games, cell phones, and family work obligations), and culture all influence literacy levels. In Laos, which has a phonetic alphabet, reading is relatively easy to learn—especially compared to English, where spelling and pronunciation rules are filled with exceptions, and Chinese, with thousands of symbols to be memorized. But a lack of books and other written materials has hindered functional literacy in Laos, where many children and adults read so haltingly that the skill is hardly beneficial.

Laos has the lowest level of adult literacy in all of Southeast Asia other than East Timor.[58]

Three Laotian girls sit outside their school, each absorbed in reading a book they received at a rural school book party.



The PRC conducts standardized testing to assess proficiency in Standard Chinese, known as "putonghua," but it is primarily for foreigners or those needing to demonstrate professional proficiency in the Beijing dialect. Literacy in languages like Chinese can be assessed by reading comprehension tests, just as in other languages, but historically has often been graded on the number of Chinese characters introduced during the speaker's schooling, with a few thousand considered the minimum for practical literacy. Social science surveys in China have repeatedly found that just more than half the population of China is conversant in spoken putonghua,[57] suggesting that many inhabitants of China have received very limited schooling.


Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world at 28.1% with males having a literacy rate of 43.1% and females with a literacy rate of 12.6%. The Afghan government considers someone literate if they are 15 years of age or older, and if they can read and write. [42] To improve the literacy rate U.S. military trainers have been teaching Afghan Army recruits how to read before teaching to fire a weapon. U.S. commanders in the region estimate that as many as 65% of recruits may be illiterate.[56]


Literacy in Asia

Zimbabwe has a high literacy rate of 90.7% (2003 est.).[42]


Uganda has a literacy rate of 66.8%.[42]


The Sierra Leone government defines literacy as anyone over the age of 15 who can read and write in English, Mende, Temne, or Arabic. Official statics put the literacy rate at 43.3%.[54] Sierra Leone was the second country to use the Literacy, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding project. However, due to fighting near the city where the project was centered causing the project to be delayed until an arms amnesty was in place. [55]

Sierra Leone

There is no reliable data on the nationwide literacy rate in Somalia. A 2013 FSNAU survey indicates considerable differences per region, with the autonomous northeastern Puntland region having the highest registered literacy rate at 72%.[53]


Senegal has a literacy rate of 49.7%; the government defines literacy as anyone who is at least 15 years of age and over who can read and write.[42] However, many students do not attend school long enough to be considered literate. The government did not begin actively attempting to improve the literacy rate until 1971 when it gave the responsibility to Department for Vocational Training at the Secretariat for Youth and Sports. This department and subsequent following departments had no clear policy on literacy until the Department of Literacy and Basic Education was formed in 1986. The government of Senegal relies heavily on funding from the World Bank to fund its school system.[52]


Niger has an extremely low literacy rate at 28.7%. However, the gender gap between males and females is a major problem for the country, males have a literacy rate of 42.9% and females a literacy rate of 15.1%. The Nigerian government defines literacy as anyone who can read or write over the age of 15. [42] The Niass Tijaniyya, a predominate group of the Sufi brotherhoods, has started anti-poverty, empowerment, and literacy campaigns. The women in Kiota had not attempted to improve their education, or economic standing. Saida Oumul Khadiri Niass, known as Maman, through talking to men and women throughout the community changed the community's beliefs on appropriate behavior for women because the community recognized she was married to a leader of the Niass Tijaniyya. Maman's efforts has allowed women in Kiota to own small businesses, sell in the market place, attend literacy classes, and organize small associations that can give micro loans. Maman personally teaches children in and around Kiota, with special attention to girls. Maman has her students require instructor permission to allow the girls' parents to marry their daughters early. This increases the amount of education these girls receive, as well as delaying marriage and pregnancy. [51]


Mali has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world at 33.4% with males having a 43.1% literacy rate and females having a 24.6% literacy rate. The government defines literacy as, anyone who is at least 15 and over who can read or write.[42] The government of Mali and international organizations in recent years has taken steps to improve the literacy rate. The government recognized the slow progress in literacy rates and began created ministries for basic education and literacy for their national languages in 2007. To also improve literacy the government planned to increase its education budget by 3%, when this was purposed it was at 35% in 2007. The lack of literate adults causes the programs to be slowed. The programs need qualified female trainers is a major problem because most men refuse to send female family members to be trained under male teachers.[50]


The literacy rate in Kenya among people below 20 years of age is over 70%, as the first 8 years of primary school are provided tuition-free by the government. In January 2008, the government began offering a restricted program of free secondary education. Literacy is much higher among the young than the old population, with the total being about 53% for the country. Most of this literacy, however, is elementary—not secondary or advanced.


Guinea has a literacy rate of 41%. The Guinea government defines literacy as anyone who can read or write who is at least 15 years old or older.[42] Guinea was the first to use the Literacy, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding project. This project was developed to increase agriculture production, develop key skills, resolve conflict, improve literacy, and numeracy skills. The LCRP worked within refugee camps near the border of Sierra Leone, however this project only lasted from 1999 to 2001. There are several other international projects working within the country that have similar goals. [49]


The Ethiopians are among the first literate people in the world, having written, read, and created manuscripts in their ancient language of Ge'ez (Amharic) since the second century CE.[47] All boys learned to read the Psalms around the age of 7. National literacy campaign introduced in 1978 increased literacy rates to between 37% (unofficial) and 63% (official) by 1984.[48]


According to the Ministry of Information of Eritrea, the nation has an estimated literacy rate of 80%.[46]


Djibouti has an estimated literacy rate of 70%.[45]


Egypt has a relatively high literacy rate. The adult literacy rate in 2010 was estimated at 72%.[44] Education is compulsory from ages 6 to 15 and free for all children to attend. 93% of children enter primary school today, compared with 87% in 1994.


Burkina Faso has a very low literacy rate of 28.7%. The government defines literacy as anyone is at least 15 years of age and up who can read and write.[42] To improve the literacy rate the government has received at least 80 volunteer teachers. A severe lack of primary school teachers causes problems for any attempt to improve the literacy rate and school enrollment.[43]

A UNV teacher conducts a small class of children in Burkina Faso, Africa. Photo by U.N.

Burkina Faso

Botswana has among the highest literacy rates in the developing world with around 85% of its population being literate.


The literacy rate of Algeria is around 70%: education is compulsory and free in Algeria up to age of 17.


The literacy rates in Africa vary significantly between countries. The highest registered literacy rate in the region is in Equatorial Guinea and Libya (both 94.2%), while the lowest literacy rate is in South Sudan (27%).[42]

Literacy in Africa

Since democracy returned to Brazil, however, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of literate people.

In 1964 in Brazil, Paulo Freire was arrested and exiled for teaching peasants to read.[41]

Literacy in South America

Before colonization, oral storytelling and communication comprised most if not all Native American literacy. Native people communicated and retained their histories verbally—it was not until the beginning of American Indian boarding schools that reading and writing forms of literacy were forced onto Native Americans. While literacy rates of English increased, forced assimilation exposed Native children to physical and sexual abuse, unsanitary living conditions and even death. Many students ran away in an attempt to hold on to their cultural identity and literary traditions that were relevant to their community. While these formalized forms of literacy prepared Native youth to exist in the changing society, they destroyed all traces of their cultural literacy. Native children would return to their families unable to communicate with them due to the loss of their indigenous language. In the 20th and 21st century, there is still a struggle to learn and maintain cultural language. But education initiatives and programs have increased overall—according to the 2010 census, 86 percent of the overall population of American Indians and Alaska Natives have high school diplomas, and 28 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.[40]

Native youth in front of Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania c. 1900
Cultural and westernized literacy for Native Americans in the United States

Full prose proficiency,[36] as measured by the ability to process complex and challenging material such as would be encountered in everyday life, is achieved by about 13% of the general, 17% of the white, and 2% of the African American population.[37][38] However 86% of the general population had basic or higher prose proficiency as of 2003, with a decrease distributed across all groups in the full proficiency group vs. 1992 of more than 10%, consistent with a general decline.[39]

In 1820, 20% of the entire adult white population was illiterate, and 80% of the African American population was illiterate . By 1900 the situation had improved somewhat, but 44% of African American people remained illiterate. There were significant improvements for African American and other races in the early 20th century as the descendants of former slaves, who had had no educational opportunities, grew up in the post Civil War period and often had some chance to obtain a basic education. The gap in illiteracy between white and black adults continued to narrow through the 20th century, and in 1979 the rates were about the same.[35]

One-room school in Alabama c. 1935

United States

In the last 40 years the rate of illiteracy in Mexico has been steadily decreasing. In the 1960s, because the majority of the residents of the federal capital were illiterate, the planners of the Mexico City Metro designed a system of unique icons to identify each station in the system in addition to its formal name. However, The INEGI´s census data of 1970 showed a national average illiteracy rate of 25.8%; the last census data puts the national average at 6.9%. Mexico still has a gender educational bias. The illiteracy rate for women in the last census was 8.1% compared with 5.6% for men. Rates differ across regions states. Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, the states with the highest poverty rate, had greater than 15% illiteracy in 2010(17.8%, 16.7% and 16.3 respectively). In contrast, the illiteracy rates in the Federal District (D.F. / Mexico City) and in some northern states like Nuevo León, Baja California and Coahuila were below 3% in 2010 census (2.1%, 2.2%, 2.6% and 2.6% respectively).[34]


The OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is expected to produce new comparative skill profiles in late 2013.[33]

In 2003, Canada participated in the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL). This survey contained identical measures for assessing the prose and document literacy proficiencies, allowing for comparisons between survey results on these two measures and found that 41.9% and 42.6% of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 scored at the lowest two levels of Prose Literacy and document literacy respectively.[32] Further, Canadians’ mean scores also improved on both the prose and the document literacy scales.

In 1994-95, Canada participated in the first multi-country, multi-language assessment of adult literacy, the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). A stratified multi-stage probability sample design was used to select the sample from the Census Frame. The sample was designed to yield separate samples for the two Canadian official languages, English and French, and participants were measured on the dimensions of prose literacy, document literacy and quantitative literacy. The survey found that 42.2%, 43% and 42.2% of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 scored at the lowest two levels of Prose Literacy, Document Literacy and Quantitative Literacy, respectively.[32] The survey presented many important correlations, among which was a strong plausible link between literacy and a country’s economic potential.

This first survey was called the “Literacy Skills Used in Daily Activities” (LSUDA) survey, and was modeled on the 1985 U.S. survey of young adults (YALS).[32] It represented a first attempt in Canada to produce skill measures deemed comparable across languages. Literacy, for the first time, was measured on a continuum of skills.[32] The survey found that 16% of Canadians had literacy skills too limited to deal with most of the printed material encountered in daily life whereas 22% were considered “narrow” readers.

Canada conducted its first literacy survey in 1987 which discovered that there were more than five million functionally illiterate adults in Canada, or 24 per cent of the adult population.[31] Statistics Canada then conducted three national and international literacy surveys of the adult population — the first one in 1989 commissioned by the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) department.[31]

Direct systematic measures of literacy in Canada, 1987 to present

With time, and with continuing inquiry into the literacy achievement levels of Canadians, the definition of literacy moved from a dichotomous one (either a person could, or couldn’t write his or her name, or was literate or illiterate), to ones that considered its multidimensionality, along with the qualitative and quantitative aspects of literacy. In the 1970s, organizations like the Canadian Association for Adult Education (CAAE) believed that one had to complete the 8th grade to achieve functional literacy. Examination of 1976 census data, for example, found that 4,376,655, or 28.4% of Canadians 15 years of age and over reported a level of schooling of less than grade 9 and were thus deemed not functionally literate.[27] But in 1991, UNESCO formally acknowledged Canada’s findings that assessment of educational attainment as proxy measure of literacy was not as reliable as was direct assessment.[30] This dissatisfaction manifested itself in the development of actual proficiency tests that measure reading literacy more directly.[31]

Educational change in Québec began as a result of a major commission of inquiry at the start of what came to be called the "Quiet Revolution" in the early 1960s. In response to the resulting recommendations, the Québec government revamped the school system in an attempt to enhance the francophone population's general educational level and to produce a better-qualified labour force. Catholic Church leadership was rejected in favour of government administration and vastly increased budgets were given to school boards across the province.[26]

In 1871 only about half of French Canadian men in Canada self-reported that they were literate, whereas 90 percent of other Canadian men said they could read and write, but information from the Canadian Families Project sample of the 1901 Census of Canada indicated that literacy rates for French Canadians and other Canadians increased, as measured by the ability of men between the ages of 16 and 65 to answer literacy questions.[28] Compulsory attendance in schools was legislated in the late 19th century in all provinces but Quebec, but by then, a change in parental attitudes towards educating the new generation meant that many children were already attending regularly.[26] Unlike the emphasis of school promoters on character formation, the shaping of values, the inculcation of political and social attitudes, and proper behaviour, many parents supported schooling because they wanted their children to learn to read, write, and do arithmetic.[26] Efforts were made to exert power and religious, moral, economic/professional, and social/cultural influence over children who were learning to read by dictating the contents of their school readers accordingly. But educators broke from these spheres of influence and also taught literature from a more child-centred perspective: for the pleasure of it (Murphy, 2012).[29]


Despite this, the invention of the printing press had laid the foundation for the modern era and universal social literacy, and so it is that with time, “technologically, literacy had passed from the hands of an elite to the populace at large. Historical factors and sociopolitical conditions, however, have determined the extent to which universal social literacy has come to pass”.[27]

From the early 1820s in Lower Canada, classical college curriculum, which was monopolized by the Church, was also subject to growing liberal and lay criticism, arguing it was fit first and foremost to produce priests, when Lower Canadians needed to be able to compete effectively with foreign industry and commerce and with the immigrants who were monopolizing trade (Curtis, 1985)).[22] Liberal and lay attempts to promote parish schools generated a reaction from the Catholic and later the Anglican clergy in which the dangers of popular literacy figured centrally.[26] Both churches shared an opposition to any educational plan that encouraged lay reading of the Bible, and spokesmen for both warned of the evil and demoralizing tendencies of unregulated reading in general. Granted the power to organize parish schooling through the Vestry School Act of 1824, the Catholic clergy did nothing effective.[22]

In the 19th century, everything about print changed, and literature in its many forms became much more available.[25] But educating the Canadian population in reading and writing was nevertheless a huge challenge. Concerned about the strong French Canadian presence in the colony, the British authorities repeatedly tried to help establish schools that were outside the control of religious authorities, but these efforts were largely undermined by the Catholic Church and later the Anglican clergy.[26]

The end of the Seven Years' War in 1763 allowed two Philadelphia printers to come to Québec City and to begin printing a bilingual Quebec Gazette in 1764, while in 1785 Fleury Mesplet started publication of the Montreal Gazette, which is now the oldest continuing newspaper in the country.[24]

From the British Conquest (1763) to Confederation (1867)

In his research of literacy rates of males and females in New France, Trudel found that in 1663, of 1,224 persons in New France who were of marriageable age, 59% of grooms and 46% of brides wrote their name; however, of the 3,000-plus colony inhabitants, less than 40% were native born.[23] Signature rates were therefore likely more reflective of rates of literacy among French immigrants. Magnuson’s (1985) research revealed a trend: signature rates for the period of 1680–1699 were 42% for males, 30% for females; in 1657-1715, they were 45% for males and 43% for females; in 1745-1754, they were higher for females than for males. He believed that this upward trend in rates of females’ ability to sign documents was largely attributed to the larger number of female-to-male religious orders, and to the proportionately more active role of women in health and education, while the roles of male religious orders were largely to serve as parish priests, missionaries, military chaplains and explorers. 1752 marked the date that Canada’s first newspaper—the Halifax Gazette—began publication.[24]

Research on the literacy rates of Canadians in the colonial days rested largely on examinations of the proportion of signatures to marks on parish acts (birth, baptismal, and marriage registrations). Although some researchers have concluded that signature counts drawn from marriage registers in nineteenth century France corresponded closely with literacy tests given to military conscripts,[21] others regard this methodology as a “relatively unimaginative treatment of the complex practices and events that might be described as literacy” (Curtis, 2007, p. 1-2).[22] But censuses (dating back to 1666) and official records of New France offer few clues of their own on the population’s levels of literacy, therefore leaving few options in terms of materials from which to draw literary rate estimates.

Colonial days (1600s–1762)


Literacy in North America

On the other hand, historian Harvey Graff argues that the introduction of mass schooling was in part an effort to control the type of literacy that the working class had access to. According to Graff, 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. In his view, mass schooling was meant to temper and control literacy, not spread it.[20] Graff also points out, using the example of Sweden, that mass literacy can be achieved without formal schooling or instruction in writing.

Although the present-day concepts of literacy have much to do with the 15th-century invention of the movable type printing press, it was not until the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century that paper and books became affordable to all classes of industrialized society. Until then, only a small percentage of the population were literate as only wealthy individuals and institutions could afford the materials. Even today, the cost of paper and books is a barrier to universal literacy in some less-industrialized nations.

Historian Ernest Gellner argues that Continental European countries were far more successful in implementing educational reform precisely because their governments were more willing to invest in the population as a whole.[19] The view that public education contributes to rising literacy levels is shared by the majority of historians.

The ability to read did not necessarily imply the ability to write. The 1686 church law (kyrkolagen) of the Kingdom of Sweden (which at the time included all of modern Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Estonia) enforced literacy on the people, and by 1800 the ability to read was close to 100%. But as late as the 19th century, many Swedes, especially women, could not write. That said, the situation in England was far worse than in Scandinavia, France, and Prussia: as late as 1841, 33% of all Englishmen and 44% of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates with their mark as they were unable to write (government-financed public education was not available in England until 1870 and, even then, on a limited basis).

Continental Europe

Dutch schoolmaster and children, 1662
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