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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 classic literature ?
I have also, illiterate though I am, made a little progress in science.
And I have no doubt that he will thrive, and be a very rich man in timeand his being illiterate and coarse need not disturb us.
The other officers were coarse, illiterate fellows, but little above the villainous crew they bullied, and were only too glad to avoid social intercourse with the polished English noble and his lady, so that the Claytons were left very much to themselves.
ISLAMABAD -- Chairperson National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) Razina Alam Khan said that all the goals would be achieve with the support and help of stakeholders because the education of around 60 million illiterate persons is the main target of government.
They said, NFLP depends on 6 concepts those are Budget, Saving, Utilization of Money, Managing Debt, Financial Institution and Consumers Rights and Responsibilities, NFLP tells the whole process of how can we become prosper by using our assets with pure planning, trainers told a Story of a poor family who is financially illiterate, but after getting the knowledge of how to plan for earning money and utilizing it properly the family becomes prosper after some time.
The trainers said, NFLP is launched by State Bank of Pakistan, The agenda behind the NFLP is that it focuses on those people of Pakistan who are financially illiterate, who are poor, NFLP tries to change the mindset of those people in order to make them prosper, because of this program the overall condition of Pakistan can be changed.
Summary: New Delhi [India] December 31 (ANI): The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Sunday mocked superstar Rajinikanth's announcement on entering politics and dubbed him as illiterate.
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1 percent in 2016, which means about 90,000 persons over 15 years of age are classified as illiterate in 2016.
Results: The data suggested that both illiterate women and men had the maximum number of offsprings.
Commenting the argued and withdraw proposals of the caretaker government for Election Code changes, Gerdzhikov stated that within his lifetime he would argue the right of the illiterate to vote, since in his words people who do not speak Bulgarian and are illiterate shouldnat determine the rule of the state, also because they violate the constitution, stating that the Bulgarian language is obligatory.
17%) of the women had primary level of education followed by illiterate 44 (23.