Barbara Bush attends the United Nations International Literacy Day Celebration

Literacy in the United States has increased since the formation of the nation due to education being made more readily available across the country, though the educational system was—and is still—decentralized. However, research in the latter half of the 20th century noted a decline in literacy beginning in the 1970s.[1]

The definition of literacy has changed over time and across the world. The ability to read a simple sentence suffices as literacy in many nations, and generally was the test in the United States in earlier times. The U.S. Department of Education now splits functional literacy into three categories: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy, and can test for each type of literacy.[2] A survey done in 1992 to assess the literacy through specific measures, revealed that the literacy competency of about 40 million adults was limited to the lowest level, Level 1—which meant that the adults could only understand the simplest written instructions.[3]

Interest in literacy in the U.S. has increased as jobs began to demand a higher level of literacy from workers. Literacy levels in both adult and adolescents have been brought under greater scrutiny in the U.S., with numerous reports and studies being published yearly to monitor the nation's status. Initiatives to improve literacy rates have taken the form of government provisions and external funding, which have been driving forces behind national education reform from primary school levels to higher education.[4]

Estimates of overall literacy in the United States thus vary depending on the definition, from perhaps 85% to as high as 99%, based on differing measurement methods. The United States government does not often publish an overall literacy rate. Instead, numbers are periodically released about the percentage of adults who cannot read a newspaper or complete an ordinary job application, which amounts to about 19% according to one publication.[5] Although, that 19% may still be literate enough to read less than a newspaper article.



The National Bureau of Economic Research published a data series with an overview of the history of education in the United States leading up to the 20th and 21st centuries. It stated that "formal education, especially basic literacy, is essential for a well-functioning democracy, and enhances citizenship and community."[4]

In the 19th century, literacy rates among the United States population were relatively high despite the decentralized educational system.[4] There has been a notable increase in American citizens' educational attainment since then, but studies have also indicated declining reading performance starting in the 1970s.[1] In the past, although entities such as the U.S. Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) and legislation such as the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 have highlighted education as a topic of national importance,[6] the push for high levels of mass literacy has been a recent development. Expectations concerning literacy have sharply increased over the past decades.[7] Contemporary standards for adequate literacy have become more difficult to meet in comparison to historical criteria. Whereas such standards were only applied to the elite in the past, due to the proliferation of and increased accessibility to education in the form of public schools, the expectation of mass literacy has been applied to the entirety of the U.S. population.

Being literate has particular importance once an individual reaches adulthood, as the changing dynamics of the American job market demand greater skills and knowledge of entry-level workers. In the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, young adults without postsecondary education experienced difficulties in obtaining career positions. A multivariable analysis revealed that low and below basic literacy rates were characteristic of individuals lacking higher education.[8] Thus, improving and sustaining mass literacy at earlier stages in education has also become a main focus of American leaders and policymakers.

Dating back to when A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, there has been great interest in the performance of American students relative to that of youth populations across the globe. It has been observed that adolescents undergo a critical transition during their grade school years, which prepares them to learn and apply knowledge to their actions and behavior in the real world.[9] Similarly to how the jobs market has become more demanding, the rigor of educational institutions has also increased to prepare students for the more complex tasks that will be expected of them moving forward.[10] Addressing the issue of subpar reading performance and low literacy rates among the youth is particularly pertinent to achieving high levels of mass literacy because the issue of subpar academic performance is compounded. Essentially, students who struggle at an early age continue to struggle throughout their educational years because they do not have the same foundation of understanding and breadth of knowledge to build upon as their peers. This often translates below average poor literacy levels in later grades and even adulthood.[11]

Literacy levels at both adult and adolescent ages have been brought under greater scrutiny in the U.S., with numerous reports and studies being published year to year to monitor the nation's status. Initiatives to improve literacy rates have taken the form of government provisions and external funding, which have been driving forces behind national education reform from primary school levels to higher education.[4]

Defining literacyEdit

The simplest definition of literacy in a nation is the percent of people age 15 or older who can read and write, which is used in ranking nations. There are more complex definitions, involving the kind of reading for various occupations or tasks of daily life, given names of functional literacy, prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. The more complex definitions of literacy are useful to educators; in the U.S., the Department of Education uses a more complex set of definitions.

In a 2003 study of adults, the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, measured functional literacy.[2] The Center measured functional literacy in three parts: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. Prose literacy consists of the "knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks" and includes reading news articles and brochures.[2] Document literacy consists of the "knowledge and skills needed to perform document tasks", which include job applications, payroll forms, and maps.[2] Similarly, quantitative literacy is the "knowledge and skills required to perform quantitative tasks" and those tasks include balancing a checkbook or filling out an order form.[2]

Governments around the world may label those individuals who can read a few thousand simple words they learned by sight in the first four grades in school as literate. UNESCO has collected the various definitions used by nations in their tables of literacy, in a table title General Metadata on National Literacy Data; variations depend on whether childhood literacy (age 6) or adult literacy was measured. The list distinguishes between the respondent's self report of literacy or demonstrated ability to read.[12]

Other sources may term such individuals functionally illiterate if they are unable to read basic sources of written information like warning labels and driving directions. Thus, if this bottom quantile of the study is equated with the functionally illiterate, and these are then removed from those classified as literate, then the resultant literacy rate for the United States would be at most 65-85% depending on where in the basic, minimal competence quantile one sets the cutoff, in a particular survey of adults.[citation needed]

The 15% figure for full literacy, equivalent to a university undergraduate level, is consistent with the notion that the "average" American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level. It is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.[citation needed]

The World Factbook from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the U.S. states that "There are no universal definitions and standards of literacy" and that their statistics are based on the most common definition - "the ability to read and write at a specified age." Further, "detailing the standards that individual countries use to assess the ability to read and write is beyond the scope of the Factbook. Information on literacy, while not a perfect measure of educational results, is probably the most easily available and valid for international comparisons."[13]

The World Factbook shows that the U.S. has a literacy rate of 99.0%, and is rated 28 among the 214 nations included in the World Factbook. Using the definition, literacy in the population thus refers to the percentage of people age 15 or older who can read and write.[14][13]

NCES statistics reported that 19% of adults in the U.S. cannot read a newspaper nor complete a job application, while the "Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 50 percent of U.S. adults can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level."[5] Failure to complete secondary school is blamed for some of these problems with literacy; programs to address literacy directly have increased.[5]

The World Atlas lists the U.S. as having a literacy rate of 86%, number 125 in a list of 197 nations.[15] Though it describes the education systems in the nations that have reached near 100% literacy, World Atlas does not provide its definition of literacy, or source of the rates by nation.[15]

Measuring literacyEdit

Functional literacy can be broken down further into useful literacy, informational literacy, and pleasurable literacy. Useful literacy reflects the most common practice of using an understanding of written text to navigate daily life, as in the aforementioned examples. Informational literacy can essentially be defined as text comprehension and the ability to connect the new information presented in the text to previous knowledge. Pleasurable literacy is simply the ability of an individual to read, understand, and engage with texts that he or she enjoys.[16] In a more abstract sense, multiple literacies can be classified into school, community, and personal conceptions. These categories refer to an individual's ability to learn about academic subjects, understand social and cultural contexts, as well as learn about themselves from an examination of their own backgrounds.[16]

In 1988, the U.S. Department of Education was asked by Congress to undertake a national literacy survey of American adults.[17] The study identifies a class of adults who, although not meeting criteria for functional illiteracy, face reduced job opportunities and life prospects due to inadequate literacy levels relative to the requirements released in April 2002 and reapplied in 2003 giving trend data. It involved lengthy interviews of over 4.7% adults statistically balanced[clarification needed] for age, gender, ethnicity, education level, and location (urban, suburban, or rural) in 12 states across the U.S. and was designed to represent the U.S. population as a whole.</ref>:xi The National Adult Literacy Survey undertaken in 1992, was the first literacy survey that provided "accurate and detailed information on the skills of the adult population as a whole." The U. S. has participated in cyclical, large-scale assessment programs undertaken by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) and sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) since 1992. The survey revealed that the literacy competence of about 40 million adults was limited to the lowest level, Level 1 which meant they could only understand the simplest written instructions.[3]

The Institute of Education Sciences conducted large scale[vague] assessments of adult proficiency in 1992 and 2003 using a common methodology from which trends could be measured. The study measures Prose, Document, and Quantitative skills and 19,000 subjects participated in the 2003 survey. There was no significant change in Prose or Document skills and a slight increase in Quantitative attributes. As in 2008, roughly 15% of the sample could function at the highest levels in all three categories. Roughly 50% were at either basic or below basic levels of proficiency in all three categories.[17] This government study showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were "not able to locate information in text", could "not make low-level inferences using printed materials", and were "unable to integrate easily identifiable pieces of information." Approximately one-quarter of the individuals who performed at this level reported that they were born in another country, and some of them were undoubtedly recent immigrants with a limited command of English. In addition, 62 percent of the individuals on that level of the prose scale stated they had not completed high school; 35 percent, in fact, had finished no more than 8 years of schooling. Relatively high percentages of the respondents in this level were African America, Hispanic, or Asian/Pacific Islander, and many — approximately 33 percent — were age 65 or older. Further, 26 percent of the adults who performed in Level 1 said they had a physical, mental, or health condition that kept them from participating fully in work and other activities, and 19 percent reported having vision problems that made it difficult for them to read print. In sum, the individuals at this level of literacy had a diverse set of characteristics that influenced their performance in the assessment. Additionally, this study showed that 41% to 44% of U.S. adults at the lowest level on the literacy scale were living in poverty.[17]

A NAAL follow-up study by the same group of researchers using a smaller database (19,714 interviewees) was released in 2006 that showed some upward movement of low end (basic and below to intermediate) in U.S. adult literacy levels and a decline in the full proficiency group.[18]

In 2003, the United States was one of seven countries that participated in the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) with results published in 2005. Starting in 2011, the U.S., along with dozens of other countries, participated in the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a large-scale assessment of adult skills, including literacy, under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The NCES describes the PIACC as the "most current indicator of the nation's progress in adult skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments."[19]

United States Department of Education surveysEdit

English Language Proficiency Survey (1982)Edit

In 1982, funded by the United States Department of Education,[20] the United States Census Bureau conducted an in-home literacy test of 3,400 adults known as the English Language Proficiency Survey (ELPS).[21] The Education department considered this direct measure of literacy more accurate than a previous estimate in 1979, which inferred literacy based on years of education completed.[22] The data from the test were presented in the 1986 Census Bureau report, concluding that 13% of the adults living in the United States were illiterate in English.[22] Nine percent of adults whose native language was English (native speakers), were illiterate while 48% of nonnative speakers were illiterate in English but not necessarily illiterate in their maternal language.[22]

In his 1985 book Illiterate America,, Jonathan Kozol ascribed the very high figures for literacy to weaknesses in methodology.[23] Kozol noted that, in addition to these weaknesses, the reliance on written forms would have obviously excluded many individuals who did not have a literate family member to fill out the form for them... (and that if they did, these people might be especially reluctant to talk to a stranger who might be a bill collector, tax auditor, or salesperson).[23] The Census Bureau reported literacy rates of 86% based on personal interviews of a portion of the population and on written responses to Census Bureau mailings. They also considered individuals literate if they simply stated that they could read and write, and made the assumption that anyone with a fifth grade education had at least an 80% chance of being literate. Finally, Kozol suggested that because illiterate people are likely to be unemployed and may not have telephones or permanent addresses, the census bureau would have been unlikely to find them.[23]

National Adult Literacy Survey (1992)Edit

In 1988, the U.S. Department of Education was asked by Congress to undertake a national literacy survey of American adults.[17]:xi The National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the United States Department of Education, awarded a contract to the Educational Testing Service and a subcontract to Westat to design and conduct the survey.[24]

The 1992 survey, National Adult Literacy Survey provided "accurate and detailed information on the skills of the adult population as a whole. The survey interviewed around 26,000 people ages 16 and older: a nationally representative sample of around 14,000 people and an additional 12,000 surveys from states which opted into state-level assessments. Results were published in 1993.[3]:xiv In 1993 the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) was used as a "nationally representative and continuing assessment of English language literary skills of American Adults.[25] The study explicitly avoided a single standard of literacy or illiteracy, instead assessing individuals in three aspects of literacy, with each aspect defined on a 500 point scale. Scores in each individual aspect (prose, document, quantitative) were grouped together in five levels: level 1 (0-225), level 2 (226-275), level 3 (276-325), level 4 (326-375), and level 5 (376-500).

National Assessment of Adult Literacy (2003)Edit

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), is sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) as one of their assessment programs.[26]

The study included comparisons to the 1992 survey. Adults (over sixteen years of age) were scored on their prose, document, and quantitative literacy. There was "no significant change in prose and document literacy between 1992 and 2003; but quantitative literacy improved.[19] The study maintained the practice from the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey of dividing literacy into three different aspects, each measured on a 500 point scale. Scores in each aspect were again grouped into five different levels, but using a new numerical scale which was different for each aspect.

International surveysEdit

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills SurveyEdit

The United States was a participant in the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL), along with Bermuda, Canada, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, and the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. Data was collected in 2003 and the results were published in 2005.[27] Adults were scored on "five levels of difficulty in prose, document and numeracy literacy. In 2003, only 8% of the population aged 16 to 65 in Norway fell into the lowest skill level, level 1; the highest percentage was 47% in Italy. The United States was third highest at 20% in 2003.[27]:17

Program for the International Assessment of Adult CompetenciesEdit

The United States participated in studies as part of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) which was "developed under the auspices" of the "Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The PIACC is a "collaborative endeavour involving the participating countries, the OECD Secretariat, the European Commission and an international Consortium led by Educational Testing Service (ETS)".[28] According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the PIACC, provides the "most current indicator of the nation's progress in adult skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments" is a "large-scale assessment of adult skills."[19]

In 2012, twenty four countries, including the United States participated in this large-scale study.[29]

In 2014 thirty three countries, including the United States, participated in the survey.[29]

The 2013 OECD report entitled "First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills", which published results of test undertaken in 2011 and 2012, revealed that the "skills of adults in the United States [had] remained relatively unchanged in the decade since the previous report,[clarification needed] while other countries have been showing improvements, especially among adults with low basic skills."[30]

The 2011 test for literacy was altered to include more skills test, because "Before the PIAAC 2011 survey, however, essentially all that one could infer about the literacy skills of adults below Level 1 was that they could not consistently perform accurately on the easiest literacy tasks on the survey. One could not estimate what literacy tasks they could do successfully, if any."[31]

In 2016, PIAAC 2012 and 2014 data were released.[29] Participating adults from Singapore and the United States had the largest number of adults scoring "at or below Level 1 in literacy proficiency" compared to other participating countries in their performance in "all three reading components". The authors of the OECD report stated, "These results may be related to the language background of the immigrant population in the United States."[28]

Other studiesEdit

Central Connecticut State UniversityEdit

Between 2005 and 2009, Dr. Jack Miller of the Central Connecticut State University conducted annual studies aimed at identifying America's most literate cities drawing from a variety of available data resources, America’s Most Literate Cities study ranks the largest cities (population 250,000 and above) in the United States. This study focuses on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources[32]

City Rankings
2009 2008 2007 2006 2005
Seattle, WA 1 1.5 2 1 1
Washington, D.C. 2 3 5 3.5 3
Minneapolis, MN 3 1.5 1 2 2
Pittsburgh, PA 4 12 9 6 8
Atlanta, GA 5 6 8 3.5 4
Portland, OR 6 10.5 12 10 11
St. Paul, MN 7 4 3 5 9.5
Boston, MA 8 8 10 11 7
Cincinnati, OH 9 10.5 11 7 9.5
Denver, CO 10 7 4 8 6

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Stedman, Lawrence C.; Kaestle, Carl F. (1987). "Literacy and Reading Performance in the United States, from 1880 to the Present". Reading Research Quarterly. 22 (1): 8. doi:10.2307/747719. ISSN 0034-0553. JSTOR 747719.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Three Types of Literacy". National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Kirsch, Irwin S.; Jungeblut, Ann; Jenkins, Lynn; Kolstad, Andrew (September 1993). Adult Literacy in America (Report). National Center for Educational Statistics. National Center for Education Studies.
  4. ^ a b c d Goldin, Claudia (August 1999). "A Brief History of Education in the United States". Cambridge, Massachusetts. doi:10.3386/h0119.
  5. ^ a b c Strauss, Valerie (November 1, 2016). "Hiding in plain sight: The adult literacy crisis". The Answer Sheet. The Washington Post. Retrieved July 2, 2019.
  6. ^ Sticht, Thomas G. (November 1995). "Adult Education for Family Literacy". Adult Learning. 7 (2): 23–24. doi:10.1177/104515959500700212. ISSN 1045-1595.
  7. ^ Resnick, Daniel; Resnick, Lauren (September 1977). "The Nature of Literacy: An Historical Exploration". Harvard Educational Review. 47 (3): 370–385. doi:10.17763/haer.47.3.27263381g038222w. ISSN 0017-8055.
  8. ^ Ying, Jin (2009). Preparing youth for the future: the literacy of America's young adults. U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. OCLC 733296227.
  9. ^ Ippolito, Jacy; Steele, Jennifer L. Adolescent literacy. ISBN 9780916690526. OCLC 773348894.
  10. ^ Alvermann, Donna E. (June 2002). "Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents". Journal of Literacy Research. 34 (2): 189–208. CiteSeerX doi:10.1207/s15548430jlr3402_4. ISSN 1086-296X.
  11. ^ M., Barone, Diane (2006). Narrowing the literacy gap : what works in high-poverty schools. Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1593852771. OCLC 64555680.
  12. ^ "Education: Literacy rate". UNESCO Institute for Statistics. February 2019. Retrieved July 2, 2019. Metadata table opens in a spreadsheet
  13. ^ a b "References: Definitions and Notes, Literacy". CIA World Factbook. Retrieved October 29, 2017.
  14. ^ Literacy - The World Factbook - CIA. United States CIA. 2010 – via Encyclopedia of the Nations.
  15. ^ a b Burton, James (September 14, 2018). "List of Countries By Literacy Rate". World Atlas. Retrieved July 2, 2019.
  16. ^ a b Gallego, Margaret A.; Hollingsworth, Sandra (2000). What counts as literacy: challenging the school standard. Teachers College Press. ISBN 978-0807739730. OCLC 44133067.
  17. ^ a b c d Kirsch, Irwin S.; Jungeblut, Ann; Jenkins, Lynn; Kolstad, Andrew (April 2002), Adult Literacy in America (PDF) (3 ed.), National Center for Educational Statistics, retrieved October 29, 2017, Prose level 4: "These tasks require readers to perform multiple-feature matches and to integrate or synthesize information from complex or lengthy passages. More complex inferences are needed to perform successfully."   This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  18. ^ A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st century (PDF), National Center for Educational Statistics, 2006, retrieved 2007-12-11
  19. ^ a b c Demographics, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017, retrieved October 29, 2017
  20. ^ Language Characteristics and Schooling in the U. S.: A Changing Picture, 1979 and 1989. p. 4.
  21. ^ "English Language Proficiency Study (ELPS), 1982 Microdata File. Technical Documentation". 1987.
  22. ^ a b c Werner, Leslie Maitland (April 21, 1986), 13% of U.S. adults are illiterate in English, a Federal study finds, Special to the New York Times, Washington, retrieved October 29, 2017
  23. ^ a b c Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America. New York: New American Library. pp. 37–39. ISBN 978-0-452-26203-4.
  24. ^ "Adult Literacy in America" (PDF). p. xiii.   This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  25. ^ Schierloh, Jane M. (August 30, 1993), Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey, retrieved October 29, 2017
  26. ^ "What is NALS?". National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). n.d. Retrieved October 29, 2017.
  27. ^ a b Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (PDF) (Report). Paris: OECD. OECD and Statistics Canada. 2005. p. 333. Retrieved October 29, 2017. "Proportionally to population size, the United States has built the largest pool of highly skilled adults in the world." "Level 1:Tasks in this level tend to require the respondent either to locate a piece of information based on a literal match or to enter information from personal knowledge onto a document. Little, if any, distracting information is present
  28. ^ a b OECD Skills Studies Skills Matter Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (PDF) (Report). OECD Skills Studies. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). doi:10.1787/9789264258051-en. ISBN 978-92-64-25805-1.
  29. ^ a b c Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 2016, retrieved October 29, 2017
  30. ^ OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (Report). Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2013. Retrieved October 29, 2017.
  31. ^ Sabatini, John, Understanding the Basic Reading Skills of U.S. Adults: Reading Components in the PIAAC Literacy Survey, Educational Testing Service (ETS)
  32. ^ America's Most Literate Cities, Central Connecticut State University.

External linksEdit