What Is World Literacy?

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  • Written By: Marlene de Wilde
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 11 March 2020
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World literacy rates vary greatly according to country and definition of the word "literacy." There is no universal definition of literacy, but the most common one is the ability to read and write at a certain age. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), this definition no longer suffices. It should also mean the ability to communicate, understand, compute, and use printed and written materials found in everyday life. It also involves the ability of individuals to achieve goals and reach their potential by developing their knowledge and participating fully in society.

There is a difficulty in the reporting of world literacy rates, as statistics are self-reported and not checked by an objective authority. As of 2011, nearly 800 million illiterate adults can be found around the world, in countries like Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India and Egypt. Of these, two-thirds are women. The lowest literacy rates are reported in the Arab states, South and West Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In these regions, half of the women and one third of the men are illiterate.


In many of the richer regions, including North America, Europe, and Australasia, literacy statistics are not gathered any more, as literacy is taken for granted and statistics are assumed to be 95% and above. According to United Nations (UN) statistics, there are four billion literate people worldwide. This means that nearly one in five people lack literacy skills. In nearly 35 countries, the literacy rate is less than 50%.

World literacy is considered an essential tool in the fight against poverty and social discrimination. Low levels of literacy have been found to impact the economic development of a country. In the year 2000, the goal of making the world literate inspired various governments to collaborate with the UN to work toward education for all and to set development targets. It declared the decade to be one devoted to literacy and education for constant development.

Each year, world literacy is of special importance on International Literacy Day, a day adopted in 1965 by UNESCO. Every September 8, there is a focus on finding a way to bring literacy to those who still lack it. One example of the type of initiatives that have made a difference is the Global Literacy Project, which has programs in Africa, India and the Caribbean. The donation of books to schools in these areas means children have more access to information and materials. As of 2011, many countries have made progress, with world literacy rates improving by 50% within 30 years.


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Post 3

@Fa5t3r - I'm hoping that with the invention of cheap computers and internet that literacy rates will start rising because of access to the right materials. Often parents can't teach their children because they don't know how or have any written material that's suitable. If everyone in the world had one of those $100 laptops and an internet connection handy then they would have literacy education materials at the press of a few buttons and learning and teaching literacy would be much easier.

Post 2

@browncoat - Education all over the world seems to have gone backwards recently and I don't know why. A few years ago I was volunteering in a West African country that had deliberately changed the universal curriculum so that all their children were being taught to read by rote learning, which is pretty much the very worst way to learn it.

So their parents could read but anyone under the age of about twelve couldn't.

The world literacy rate isn't going to just get better without serious research and action. It's not something to take for granted at all, anywhere in the world.

Post 1

I think it's a mistake to abandon recording statistics on literacy rates in developed countries. Even though education is considered in a general sense to be a right in, for example, the USA, that doesn't mean that everyone has equal access to it. There are still plenty of children who slip through the cracks and never become fully literate, even in the modern world.

Perhaps especially in the modern world, as different education policies can be particularly bad for this kind of thing. If you've got a policy that all children should be pressed through school grades whether they are passing or not, then they aren't going to ever have a chance to make up what they didn't learn with their peers.

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