Literacy Rate

Are you able to read this sentence? Could you write a similar one yourself? If yes, would you also be able to write down a brief statement about your day-to-day life and read it to yourself? Perhaps something like, “I have two cups of coffee with breakfast every morning.” If you can do this and understand what you wrote, congratulations, you meet the minimum required measurement of being literate.

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Table of contents

    Literacy Rate Definition

    Literacy rates can have different definitions and forms of measurement in different parts of the world. However, the most commonly agreed upon definition comes from The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which defines the literacy rate as:

    The percentage of the population of a given age group that can read and write.1

    Being able to read and write is vital for a person's and society's social and economic development. These skills allow one to function better in society by being able to do simple tasks such as reading street signs, understanding the contents of food and medicine, and reading a menu in a restaurant. More so, it allows for the exchange of ideas, widespread communication, complex tasks to be solved, and individuals to attain more information and ideas to learn or educate oneself. Literate people can learn highly valued skills and financial competence, critical factors in human development and improving one's living standards.

    Literacy Rates Global Literacy Rates StudySmarter Fig. 1 - Global literacy rates

    High literacy rates indicate that a large percentage of the population can read and write, which suggests that there is widespread communication and complex problem-solving taking place. This, in turn, indicates a higher level of social and economic development.

    However, low literacy rates can signify stagnation or regression, especially in places where higher literacy rates were previously present. Stagnation meaning the population is less educated and less capable of developing and advancing their communities or societies socially, economically, or technologically. This may hamper a population's ability to function properly and participate fully in society. This leads to society's regression: not advancing in these areas but rather deteriorating and falling back into quality of life, safety, or economic health levels that were present decades or generations in the past.

    Literacy Rate Calculation

    To calculate the literacy rate, we take the number of people who are found to be literate and divide it by the total population of a country, region, age group, or demographic, then multiply this number by 100 to get the percentage of literate people in that group.

    For example, we want to know the youth literacy rate of all children in a town aged 15 to 24. There are 1,000 people in the town in that age group. We test or survey all children to determine whether they are literate. 950 of them are deemed to be literate. We use the following formula to come up with a literacy rate:


    L stands for the number of literate people. T stands for the total population. R stands for literacy rate. This will always be a percentage. In our example, L would be 950. T would be 1,000, and R would be 95%.


    950÷1000 = 0.95


    UNESCO uses the criterion of “People who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life” to measure literacy.1

    This simple, practical method makes it easy to survey large numbers of people, but it does not give too much insight into the level of proficiency someone may have. A person, in theory, could know how to read a write only a few words or phrases and still pass as literate. While technically, they would be literate in this case, they may not be proficient enough to use these skills to go through everyday life and advance their socio-economic status. They may not be qualified for good jobs, able to open bank accounts, or read and understand contracts or agreements.

    There is no universal global standard for how literacy rate is measured. Some countries infer, based on the number of people who have finished a certain level of education, that they must be literate. Some use census data which typically includes short, simple questions like the one above or yes/no questions. Generally, any form of measurement attempts to answer the same basic question. Can this person read and write?

    Literacy Rates How literacy rates are measured StudySmarterFig. 2 - How literacy rates are measured

    There are many efforts and tests that standardize skills and competencies, including the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and The Literary Assessment and Monitoring Program (LAMP).4 These have mostly operated in different areas of the world with some overlap and are not comprehensively administered yet.

    Adult Literacy Rate

    Although up-to-date data are unavailable for many countries, given the UNESCO definition of literacy, the proportion of literate people above the age of 15 was 87% in 2020.5

    The rate has steadily increased over the last fifty years, from 67% in 1970. This increase has had an average pace of 0.4% of the global adult population who wasn’t literate the previous year becoming so.

    World Literacy Rate

    As mentioned, the global literacy rate for adults was 87% for all those above 15 years old in 2020. This is one percent high than the previous year.5

    In 2019, 750 million adults remained illiterate. In 2017 about 262 million children did not attend school.6 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are most at risk of having kids grow up illiterate.

    This was before the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused prolonged school closures throughout the world, putting kids behind on lessons and bringing financial hardship to millions of children, many of whom may now not return to schools at all.

    To break the cycle of poverty it is essential to ensure that all children have access to quality education. Investments in education are vital to reducing poverty and inequalities and achieving sustainable development. However, LDCs still face significant challenges in providing quality education for all.

    It can be difficult not to have basic needs met and pursue education at any level. Not many kids will attend school if they are needed to help their family work in the fields for food or walk several kilometers to gather water for daily needs.

    In many places in the world, there is a disparity between access to education among boys and girls, with girls having less access in many places and thus having a higher illiteracy rate.

    Literacy Rates Literacy Rates in Afghanistan StudySmarterFig. 3 - Literacy rates in Afghanistan

    For these reasons and others, Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are most at risk of having kids grow up illiterate. Literacy empowers people to function in the world and realize their potential. Without this, people are lower than the first leg of the ladder they can climb to improve their health, living standards, development, and financial well-being.

    Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics, and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity.8

    - Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General

    Literacy Rate Example

    Let's consider Afghanistan, a country we have already mentioned, in more detail. In 2011, the literacy rate in Afghanistan was just over 30% for those over 15 years old. As the chart shows, there has been progress in the last few decades; however, this is still one of the lowest rates in the world.

    In 2011, more than two out of three Afghans 15 years or older were classified as illiterate by the UNESCO measurement, which is again being able to write a short statement about one's daily life, read it, and understand it.

    The reason for this is very complex, requiring great knowledge of Afghan history, culture, and community dynamics to understand fully. However, key factors can be highlighted. A major one is the string of conflicts that have engulfed the country over the last several decades. These have disrupted the stability of communities and made consistent education very difficult to attain. Cultural and religious norms are other key factors, as well as a extremely mountainous terrain that isolates areas of the country from resources that could positively impact literacy.

    US Literacy Rate

    The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assesses children and young adults on various subjects. The reading portion is given periodically to children and young adults in elementary, middle, and high school, while the writing portion is administered periodically to middle and high students.

    For older age groups in the US, the previously mentioned Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) has been administered several times in the last decade. Before this, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy was used.

    These tests have their own standards for reading and writing proficiency, but it is generally agreed that basic literacy is the essential ability to read and write. Therefore, the literacy rate in the United States would be calculated using the same formula above.

    Given that we have established different standards and measurements for literacy rates, the following figure can be misleading. If we use the definition that UNESCO states for Literacy Rates, then most adults in the United States would qualify as literate, which means that most adults in the United States can write, read, and understand a simple statement about their lives.

    However, the PIAAC tests that were conducted between 2012 and 2014 determined that in the USA, 79% of working-age adults, ages 16-65, possessed “Skills sufficient to complete tasks that require comparing and contrasting information, paraphrasing, or making low-level inferences.”9

    This makes it difficult to see where the United States would line up against other countries. However, the PIAAC test did conclude that between 8.4 and 16.6 million adults in the US, or between 4.1% and 8.1%, may be functionally illiterate.9 This means they are unable to read simple texts for information, understand sentences, or complete simple writing tasks.

    There is a large range in this population due to 8.2 million people in the demographic tested being unable to participate in the test.

    This would get the US more closely aligned with the UNESCO measurement of literacy as the ability to write, read and understand a simple sentence about one's life. While the PIAAC definition of functionally literate and the UNESCO measurement of literate might still not be the same, we can conclude that 91.9%-95.9% of adults in the US would be functionally literate according to the PIAAC test. It could be assumed that the number of people who would meet the UNESCO criteria for literacy may be close to this level or even a bit higher. However, as shown above, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) used measurements that put the literacy rate in the US slightly higher at above 97% in 2011.2

    Check out our other explanations on other global measurements, such as the Human Development Index!

    Literacy Rate - Key takeaways

    • Literacy rates have been steadily improving over the last several decades.
    • There are several ways to measure and define literacy rates, but they all measure if someone can read and write to use these skills to function in society.
    • There are still hundreds of millions of illiterate people in the world.


    1. “Literacy Rate.” (No Date)
    2. Fig.1. Global Literacy Rates ( by Turn685 ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    3. Fig.2 How literacy rates are measured ( by UNESCO UIS 2017( is licensed by CC By-4.0 (
    4. Ortiz-Ospina, Esteban and Beltekian,Diana. “How is literacy measured?” June, 08, 2018.
    5. UNESCO Institute For Statistics. “Literacy Rate Adult Total” June 2022.
    6. United Nations Statistics Division. “SDG Goals”,women%E2%80%94remained%20illiterate%20in%202016. 2019.
    7. Fig.3 Literacy Rates in Afghanistan ( by UNESCO Institute for Statistics ( by licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO (
    8. Goodreads. “Kofi Annan > Quotes > Quotable Quote.”,%2C%20dams%2C%20clinics%20and%20factories. (No Date)
    9. National Center for Educational Statistics. “Adult Literacy in the United States.”,in%20PIAAC%20(OECD%202013). July, 2019.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Literacy Rate

    What is literacy rate? 

    The percentage of a population that can read and write.

    Why do we calculate literary rate? 

    To measure what proportion of the population can read and write in order to function in society and develop as people and communities. This can help governments and policy makers determine the educational health of the society.

    How are literacy rates measured? 

    There are many standards and criteria that different groups use to measure who is literate, from inferring that people who finished a certain level of education are literate to collecting census and survey data or administering reading and writing tests. Most measurements involve some way of determining if this person is able to use to their reading and writing skills to function in society. 

    What is the literacy rate in the US? 

    This depends on who you ask. Different groups have different standards for measuring literacy. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) puts the literacy rate in the US at over 97%, whereas by the definition and measurements of the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) the functional literacy rate of adults in the US is 79%. 

    How is the US literacy rate calculated? 

    The literacy rate in the US is calculated by testing such as the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) or by inferring from data such as what proportion of the population has finished what level of education.   

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What skills determine literacy?

    What does the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) say was the literacy rate in the United States in 2011?

    How many children did not attend school in 2017?


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