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inability to meet a certain minimum criterion of reading and writing skill.

Definition of Illiteracy

The exact nature of the criterion varies, so that illiteracy must be defined in each case before the term can be used in a meaningful way. In 1930 the U.S. Bureau of the Census defined as illiterate any person over ten years of age who was unable to read and write in any language. By the next census (1940), however, the concept of "functional" illiteracy was adopted, and any person with less than five years of schooling was considered functionally illiterate, or unable to engage in social activities in which literacy is assumed.

Since that time, the concept of functional illiteracy has grown in popularity among American educators, but the standards of definition have changed with the increasing complexity of most social activities. Thus, by 1970, the U.S. Office of Education considered at least six years of schooling (and sometimes as many as eight) to be the minimum criterion for functional literacy. In 1990 over 5% of the adult population living in the United States did not meet that criterion.

World Illiteracy Rates

The United Nations, which defines illiteracy as the inability to read and write a simple message in any language, has conducted a number of surveys on world illiteracy. In the first survey (1950, pub. 1957) at least 44% of the world's population were found to be illiterate. A 1978 study showed the rate to have dropped to 32.5%, by 1990 illiteracy worldwide had dropped to about 27%, and by 1998 to 16%. However, a study by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) published in 1998 predicted that the world illiteracy rate would increase in the 21st cent. because only a quarter of the world's children were in school by the end of the 20th cent. The highest illiteracy rates were found in the less developed nations of Africa, Asia, and South America; the lowest in Australia, Japan, North Korea, and the more technologically advanced nations of Europe and North America. Using the UN definition of illiteracy, the United States and Canada have an overall illiteracy rate of about 1%. In certain disadvantaged areas, however, such as the rural South in the United States, the illiteracy rate is much higher.

Combating Illiteracy

Direct attacks on illiteracy take two main forms: adult educationadult education,
extension of educational opportunities to those adults beyond the age of general public education who feel a need for further training of any sort, also known as continuing education.
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 and the establishment of public schools with compulsory attendance for children. In the United States, several federal programs have been instituted to combat adult illiteracy; universal public education has almost eliminated illiteracy among the young. Soldiers have been used effectively in Turkey and Mexico as instructors for the general populace.


Throughout most of history most people have been illiterate. In feudal society, for example, the ability to read and write was of value only to the clergy and aristocracy. The first known reference to "literate laymen" did not appear until the end of the 14th cent. Illiteracy was not seen as a problem until after the invention of printing in the 15th cent. The first significant decline in illiteracy came with the Reformation, when translation of the Bible into the vernacular became widespread and Protestant converts were taught to read it. Revolutionary political movements from the 18th to the 20th cent. generally included an attack on illiteracy as one of their goals, with the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba being among the most successful in the 20th cent.


See C. Jeffries, Illiteracy: A World Problem (1967); F. Laubach, Forty Years with the Silent Billion (1970); H. Graff, The Literacy Myth (1979) and The Legacies of Literacy (1987).

References in periodicals archive ?
Currently, the illiteracy rate in the Arab countries stands at 27.
According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the illiteracy rate among persons 15 years and above in Arab states was 24.
The union's board had said that the strike was also about serious problems primary schools faced in pre-school, special education, illiteracy, children whose mother tongue is not Greek and juvenile delinquency.
His Excellency Assadullh Hanif Balkh the Minister of Education of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan also regarded the objective of the MoU as literacy elimination oriented in the country, the Minister of Education added: As the illiteracy has had become more wide spread during the past three decades of war, the Government of Afghanistan attempts to promote literacy level and according to him based on this MoU campaigns, workshops and joint literacy courses shall be conducted in different parts of the country and for financing these programs financial support shall be sought.
Lack of awareness of entitlements of government benefits by a majority of people who are in need of it, due to high illiteracy rates and limited or no access to information
The minister stressed that the right to adult education emanates from the provisions of the Constitution which made education the right of all and as per Law 27/2005 regarding education, which stipulates in clause 9 that: "illiteracy and adult education are a national responsibly aimed to raise the cultural, social and professional levels of citizens, the Ministry assumes implementation of the necessary plans to eradicate illiteracy.
Next to ethical illiteracy it's the political illiteracy that most ails India.
TUNIS (TAP) - The recent general population census revealed that the rate of illiteracy in Tunisia decreased from 23.
Illiteracy in Victorian England: 'Shut out from the World'
The agency compares and contrasts illiteracy rates in the country between 2006 and 2013, concluding that illiteracy rates among individuals above the age of 10 decreased by a rate of 3.
The ministry faces several problems in terms of illiteracy eradication, such as a lack of awareness about the importance of education among fathers; traditions and customs that hold back females from education; and a shortage in the budget to accelerate the illiteracy eradication process," added Al-Saberi.
Meanwhile, Charlamagne Tha God feels bad about releasing the Floyd video as he didn't realise adult illiteracy was quite so prevalent.