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  1. basic competence in reading and writing. In this basic sense the term was first used in the 19th-century, when illiteracy also first began to be seen as a social problem. Before this, with no mass provision for formal education, it was simply accepted that a majority of people would not be able to learn to read and write. In most preindustrial societies literacy was the preserve of a specialist and privileged group – scribes, bureaucrats, priests etc. – who often kept the written language complex (see CONFUCIANISM) or conducted written communications in non-indigenous languages. Thus, literacy was a vehicle for social exclusion. With the advent of PRINTING and the more ready availability of written works, the spread of literacy became a significant factor in the process of democratization of social life and increased public participation in decision-making.
  2. by analogy with sense 1 , reference is sometimes also made to other forms of literacy, e.g. computer-literacy.
In modern societies a concern with literacy (and levels of literacy) has periodically been a major topic of political debate, e.g. the notion that ‘we must educate our new masters’ was an important part of the movement to increase public educational provision in the 19th century, although equally fears continued to be expressed that literacy was likely to be abused.

In functionalist and NEOEVOLUTIONARY forms of sociology, as well as more widely near universal provision for basic literacy (and numeracy) is regarded as an essential requirement for the smooth functioning of a modern economy. see also NONLITERATE SOCIETY.



Literacy as a definite degree of command of speech and writing skills is one of the most important indexes of a population’s cultural level. The specific meaning of the concept of “literacy” changes at various stages in the economic and political development of a society together with the advancement of its intellectual interests.

In prerevolutionary Russia and in other countries with low standards of education in schools, persons who were merely able to read were considered literate; in the well-developed capitalist countries it was persons possessing both reading and writing skills. Problems in defining the concept of literacy and of its statistical designation during the censuses at the end of the 19th and in the first half of the 20th century were taken up repeatedly at European and international conferences on demographic statistics and census programs. The General Conference of UNESCO (at its tenth session, held in Paris in 1958) recommended to all countries, that when taking a census, they consider literate those persons who are able to read with comprehension and are able to write a brief account of their daily lives.

In countries that have achieved universal literacy the index applied is that of education, while the literacy index retains informative value solely in the historical assessment of cultural progress. However, both indexes are applied in the international description of the cultural level of populations by country.

In prerevolutionary Russia, given the inaccessibility of schools to the children of the workers, with native-language instruction banned for children of non-Russian nationalities, and in the absence of written languages among many peoples, millions of children were deprived of an opportunity to learn to read and write. According to the 1897 census data used by Lenin to characterize literacy in prerevolutionary Russia, 21 percent of the empire’s total population was literate, and if children under nine are excluded. 27 percent (for Siberia it was 12 and 16 percent, respectively, and for Middle Asia—5 and 6 percent).

The Great October Socialist Revolution opened the doors to native-language schools for all the nationalities of the USSR. By a decree that Lenin signed on Dec. 26, 1919, all persons in the country between the ages of eight and 50 who could not read or write were committed to acquiring these skills—in the native or Russian language as they saw fit.

The job of wiping out illiteracy in the adult population took on a mass character. Millions of illiterates were drawn into the literacy schools arranged for them, and extensive preparatory measures were taken toward making universal compulsory schooling a reality. From 1923 through 1939 over 50 million illiterates and about 40 million semiliterates received instruction in the USSR. In 13 years (from 1926 to 1939) the literacy level among women almost doubled. (For the overall literary picture see Tables 1 and 2.)

Table 1. Number of literates aged 9 to 49 in prerevolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union (percent of population, by census year)
Urban and rural

Great gains in the elimination of illiteracy have been made in the other socialist countries as well, and the population of these countries is almost wholly literate. Literacy is at an adequately high level in the economically well-developed capitalist countries (such as Great Britain, the USA, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Switzerland, and Japan).

The peoples of Asia and Africa, who have taken the road to state and national sovereignty, are likewise making substantial strides in the campaign for the literacy of their populations. However, the literacy level in countries that are economically underdeveloped and dependent or were under foreign domination for a long time, continues low. According to UNESCO data (1962), in Africa there are about 120 million illiterates (about 80 percent among adults); in Asia and Oceania (without the socialist countries), about 250 million (over 50 percent); and in the Arab countries, around 44 million (about 80 percent). In most Latin American countries the number of illiterates is between 50 and 60 percent. In 1965, according to UNESCO data, the world’s illiterates numbered 750 million. The small number of schools for children is leading in many countries to growth in the number of illiterates:

Table 2. Number of literates in the Union republics aged 9 to 49 (percent of populatio, 195n9 census)
 UrbanRuralUrban and rural
Ukrainian SSR99.798.799.598.999.698.8
Byelorussian SSR99.698.799.498.699.598.6
Uzbek SSR99.097.198.997.599.097.3
Kazakh SSR98.995.298.795.098.895.1
Georgian SSR99.598.599.398.799.498.6
Azerbaijan SSR99.095.898.796.198.896.0
Lithuanian SSR99.398.598.697.998.998.1
Moldavian SSR98.695.599.397.099.196.8
Latvian SSR99.699.
Kirghiz SSR99.196.899.
Tadzhik SSR97.993.798.
Armenian SSR99.297.699.397.699.297.6
Turkmen SSR98.193.597.393.297.793.4
Estonian SSR99.899.699.499.499.799.5

their numbers have been climbing by an average of 3.5 million annually. In 1966 the UNESCO General Conference adopted a proposal of the World Congress of Ministers of Education on the Elimination of Illiteracy (Tehran, 1965) to establish an International Literacy Day (September 8).

The term “literacy” also signifies: (a) the existence of adequate knowledge in some area (political literacy, technical literacy); (b) the ability to express one’s thoughts in accordance with the norms of the literary language (for example, in accordance with grammatical, stylistic, and orthoepic norms).