illiteracy, 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 education 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).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Illiteracy: Selected full-text books and articles

Rewriting Literacy: Culture and the Discourse of the Other By Candace Mitchell; Kathleen Weiler Bergin & Garvey, 1991
Librarian's tip: Chap. 14 "How Illiteracy Becam a Problem (And How Literacy Stopped Being One)"
Democratic Education By Amy Gutmann Princeton University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: "Illiteracy: Back again to Basics" begins on p. 273
Women, Literacy, and Development: Alternative Perspectives By Anna Robinson-Pant Routledge, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "'The Illiterate Woman': Changing Approaches to Researching Women's Literacy"
Playing with Time: Mothers and the Meaning of Literacy By Jane Mace UCL Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Hide and Seek: The Search for Illiteracy"
Literacy: An International Handbook By Daniel A. Wagner; Richard L. Venezky; Brian V. Street Westview Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 58 "Investing in Adult Literacy: Lessons and Implications"
Statistical Handbook on Poverty in the Developing World By Chandrika Kaul; Valerie Tomaselli-Moschovitis Oryx Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Discussion of illiteracy begins on p. 203
Aphasia in Atypical Populations By Patrick Coppens; Yvan Lebrun; Anna Basso Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. Six "Aphasia in Illiterate Individuals"
Adult Literacy in Australia: Reading beyond the Figures By Castleton, Geraldine Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 23, No. 1, February 2000
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