Literacy, the ability to read and write at a level for an individual to operate and progress in the society they live in. It is sometimes further defined as the ability to decode written or printed signs, symbols, or letters, combined into words. In 1958 UNESCO defined an illiterate person as someone “who cannot with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his/her everyday life”.


Most literacy surveys use this basic definition, particularly surveys of literacy levels in developing countries. Based on this definition about 4 in 5 of the population of the world over 15 years of age would be considered literate. According to information from UNESCO released in 2003 more women are now literate than ever before.

The number of adults who are illiterate in the world has fallen from 22.4 per cent in 1995 to 20.3 per cent in 2000; in total from about 872 million adults in 1995 to 862 million adults in 2000. If this trend continues the number of illiterate adults in the world in 2010 should have dropped to 824 million, or 16.5 per cent. The largest fall in illiteracy has been in Africa and Asia.

Although women continue to make up 2 in every 3 of the illiterate adults in the world, the number of illiterate women is falling and the percentage of illiterate women has dropped from 28.5 per cent to 25.8 per cent. This tendency is particularly marked in Africa, where, for the first time, most women are now literate. Although discrimination is one major reason why girls and women lack access to education, countries in the developing world increasingly recognize the benefits of providing access to education for girls and women, particularly as the children of educated women are more likely to become educated themselves.

Progress is slow, however, and about 20 per cent of adults remain illiterate. Worryingly, at the present rate, it is likely that the number of illiterate adults will further fall by about 5 per cent by the year 2015. Just as worryingly, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that 121 million children in the world are not in school and most of these are girls.

Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child established education as a basic human right, about 1 in 5 adults in the world were unable to read and write at the beginning of the 21st century.


Far more than basic literacy as defined by UNESCO is necessary for any adult living in an industrialized society. Recognition of this has led to the use of more complex definitions of literacy in most industrialized countries and the use of the term “functionally illiterate” rather than “illiterate”. This term—functionally illiterate—is usually used to refer to adults who are unable to use a variety of skills beyond the reading or writing of a simple sentence. In the industrialized world someone is considered to be functionally literate if they can “use reading, writing, and calculation for his or her own and the community’s development” rather than if they can merely read and write to some limited extent.

There have been rather fewer surveys of functional illiteracy in industrialized countries than of illiteracy in the developing world. However, beginning in 1994 governments, national statistical agencies, research institutions, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) undertook a large-scale assessment of the literacy skills of adults, called the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). The IALS considered literacy in three areas: the first, “prose literacy”, focused on reading and interpreting prose in newspaper articles, magazines, and books; the second area, “document literacy”, focused on identifying and using information located in documents, such as forms, tables, charts, and indexes; the third, “quantitative literacy”, considered how well adults could apply numerical operations to information contained in printed material, such as a menu, a chequebook, or an advertisement.

The IALS considered how well adults in industrialized countries could use information to function in society and the economy rather than just classifying adults as either functionally literate or functionally illiterate. This definition was much more about the ability to operate in a print-based industrialized world than about the simple ability to decode print.

Nine countries—Canada (English- and French-speaking populations), France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland (German- and French-speaking regions), and the United States—took part in the IALS in 1994. Two years later, in 1996, five more areas—Australia, the Flemish Community in Belgium, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Northern Ireland—administered the IALS assessment tests to samples of their adults. Finally, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Slovenia, and the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland took part in the IALS in 1998.

The IALS established five levels of literacy:

• Level 1 suggested that a person had very poor skills. Adults at this Level would be unable to determine the correct amount of medicine to give a child from information printed on the package.
• Level 2 adults could only deal with simple material that was clearly laid out, and where the tasks were not very complex. Adults at level 2 had weak skills, could read, but tested poorly.
• Level 3 was considered the minimum for coping with the demands of everyday life and work in an industrialized country. It suggests the approximate level of literacy required for successfully completing secondary education and for moving on to higher education. At this level an adult should be able to integrate several sources of information and solve more complex problems.
• Levels 4 and 5 were used to describe adults who had higher-order information processing skills.
What is clear from the IALS is that there are considerable differences in the average level of literacy both within and between countries. In every country some adults had low-level literacy skills, although this varied from country to country. Common factors that influenced literacy level were home background and previous educational attainment. Recently, however, researchers and other experts have questioned the method used in the IALS and have suggested that it may not give an accurate picture of literacy in industrialized countries.
Contributed By:
Alan Wells

Credited Images: aliexpress