February 17, 2009

What is the Literacy Rate of the US?

The World Factbook, prepared by the CIA, states that the US literacy rate is around 99%. This means that around 3 million people in America are unable to functionally read and write. That is equivalent to the entire population of Mongolia!

As if those numbers weren’t enough to make you sit up and think, there is some dispute about the 99% - the actual figure could be lower, depending on the various definitions of literacy used. Jonathan Kozol, in his book ‘Illiterate America’ states that the government based the 99% literacy rate on interviews and written responses to Census Bureau mailings from a small portion of the population. Of that portion, if the responders or interviewees had completed fifth grade they were considered literate. About 5% had not completed fifth grade, but 80% of those were subsequently considered literate, and so the Bureau reached a conclusion of a 99% literacy rate.

In 1993 a new study was released. Over 5 years, and $14 million spent (the largest literacy study ever conducted by the US government) it showed that 21% to 23% of 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.”

Whether the 99% rate is correct or even if the rate is even lower, that is 3,000,000 US Americans who cannot functionally read or write.

How is this possible in one of the most developed countries in the world?

It is up to us to ensure this number is reduced in future, by encouraging education reform and ensuring every child and adult have access to education resources throughout their lives.

This post was written by Katherine Osgood, Director of International Programs at United Planet. Katherine has her own blog focusing on women’s rights issues and is a volunteer blogger with Literacy 'n' Poverty Project.

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