Adult Literacy in Developed English Speaking Countries

Literacy in the third world is increasing while decreasing in the first world

Global illiteracy has been declining over time as third world countries’ education improves; however, some first world countries are falling behind.  Helping adults gain literacy skills will reduce poverty and improve public health.

Literacy in adults (the ability to read, write, and decode meaning from words) is determined on a scale from one to five:

Level 1:

Read a short text to locate a single piece of information; have a basic vocabulary; to decode the meaning of simple sentences

Level 2:

Make matches between text and data.  Adults can paraphrase or make low-level inferences

Level 3:

Required to read and navigate dense, lengthy, or complicated texts

Level 4:

Integrate, interpret or synthesize information from complex or lengthy documents

Level 5:

Search for and integrate data across multiple, dense texts: construct syntheses of similar and contrasting ideas or points of view; or evaluate evidence-based arguments. Adults can understand subtle, rhetorical cues and can make high-level inferences or use specialized background knowledge

The minimal level of literacy for the workplace and functioning in society is level 3.

Adult literacy worldwide


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There are 781 million illiterate adults in the world; over 75% of illiterate adults are from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The global literacy rate for all people aged 15 and above is 86.3%.
Women represent almost two-thirds of all illiterate adults globally. The global literacy rate for all males is 90.0%, and the rate for all females is 82.7%.
In 1820, only 12% of people in the world could read and write. In 2016 86% of the world population can read and write.

Illiteracy has been declining over time as a result of better education in third world countries.

worldwide Literacy Rates

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PIAAC – Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies

literacy Numeracy Country Comparison

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PIAAC is a program run by the OECD for the assessment and analysis of adult skills.  The PIAAC survey measures proficiency in vital information-processing skills, literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving. The international survey covers over 40 countries and measures key cognitive skills needed in the workplace and to participate in society. (http://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/)

Literacy in New Zealand

New Zealand scored above the OECD average in literacy, problem-solving and numeracy.  57% of those surveyed scored level 3 or higher; only Japan, Finland, and the Netherlands ranked higher than in New Zealand.

These statistics do not reflect the competency of New Zealand’s educational system.  In the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), released late last year, New Zealand’s Year 5 students ranked 33rd among the 50 participating countries. And we were last out of English-speaking countries. A T.E.C. report in 2014 reported that among a sample of Year 11 students with NCEA Level 1, only 49 percent achieved the international reading benchmark. In other words, more than half of the students were functionally illiterate.  This statistic reflects the high number of Maori and Pacific Island students who are functionally illiterate. Adult literacy is also a challenge among the migrant population.

65% of inmates in New Zealand’s prisons are functionally illiterate.  63% of inmates are Pacific Island and Maori ethnicity.

Why do functionally illiterate people often end up in prison?

Functionally illiterate adults find it hard to find employment and often end up in low-paying jobs.  With few legal options available for earning adequate income and succeeding in society, illiteracy is a primary reason people turn to crime and end up in prison.  The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is directly related to reading failure.

How do young people get through the Educational system without being able to read and write adequately?

The process of dropping out begins long before high school.  It stems from a loss of interest in school, often because of being held back.  Remedial programs are used to address gaps in necessary skills.  Remedial programs do not always work, as students are still making it to high school without adequate literacy.  Dyslexia and unaddressed problems with eyesight are also reasons for illiteracy.

Programs to help adults improve literacy


Aaron Skudder


  1. It’s always funny to see the level of illiteracy attached to the way most people are in the developed countries. the figures you shared here are really of immense benefits and worthy of the read. Really I wish to share this post out to a lot of people i know that are illiterate and what they missed out by choosing to go anti-education. Thumbs up to you for sharing this here Aaron

  2. Wow, it really surprised me that America is way down in the middle of the list, but I guess it also doesn’t surprise me as our education system isn’t exactly as good as it used to be in some places. It totally makes sense that people in prison often have inadequate education and probably subpar social skills as well. I had friends who dropped out of middle school and high school and I have to admit, they weren’t exactly honor students to begin with. It’s sad and unfortunate that so many kids can even reach high school without being to read good. Crazy. Another thing that shocked me was that the global illiteracy rate for women was more than men, I thought it would be the other way around but in hindsight there are still so many cultures where women are not allowed the same opportunities as men and that’s a real shame. Great article, I liked it a lot and learned new things as well. Take care.

    • Some Asian and African countries including India are patriarchal in their attitudes towards women, and denying women education is a way of controlling them.

  3. Your article is very interesting.  Given the title, I was wondering if the stats you offered referred to literacy in English or literacy in terms of all languages.  I have worked in North American in a place where literacy was not a useful or obtainable tool for the older population as they were growing up.  Consequently, it was very difficult for them to function in the modern world.  As well, much of the population did not speak English so teaching was done in the native language with literacy in English being purely for basic function in daily living.  Your article reflects the importance of literacy and the magnitude of the problem.  Its clearing written and based on fact.  Thank you.

    • Hi Anastazja

      It is harder for adults to improve their literacy than children.  Schools need to have higher standards and not allow illiterate children through the system.

  4. Another reason why functionallly illiterate people are getting through school could be the fact that some schools will promote a student to the next class even if he or she hasn’t mastered the coursework. Schools realize that if too many students fail, it makes the school look bad rather than the students. This can happen a lot in schools in low-income areas which have limited resources. 

    • Allowing students to progress to high school without being able to adequately read and write is a major failure of the education system.  The education system is indeed broken.

  5. Rather bizarre to see the native speakers and main users of the English language to use it in a rather faulty manner. thank you so much for bringing out all these statistics and pointing out varieties of things that could serve as causes and maybe later on lead to potential means of getting solutions in here. Well! i feel a lot more people should seek for help going by the suggested you gave at the end of the post. thanks

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