Education, News

Literacy Rates In The United States

In the 20th century several countries have had a higher rate of literacy than that of the United States. Among them is the Northern neighbor of Canada. Although the CIA World Fact Book now ranks Canada and the United States equally, it all depends upon the definition of the word “literacy.”

What is literacy?

The CIA defines literacy as an individual’s (over age 15) ability to read and write with minimal comprehension. This definition of literacy means the individual is capable of only understanding the basics of what he or she is reading. In fact, the CIA’s official definition includes those individuals some call the “functioning illiterate.” Functioning illiterates can read, write and comprehend enough to “get by” in life. In some instances, these illiterate people are so, not only by definition, but also legally.

Other groups divide the literacy capabilities into sections or levels. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), level 1 has the lowest levels of literacy skills. In fact, this group encompassed more than the numbers provided by the CIA. The findings in a National Adult Literacy Survey and the National Assessment of Adult learning support this broader and more statistically correct picture of literacy in the United States.


How serious is the problem?

Over the past decade, literacy rates have not decreased significantly. While the CIA Yearbook declares the literacy rate to be 99.0%, the figures of the (NAAL) indicate differently. The literacy rate is much lower. Tests reveal approximately 14% of American adults would have tremendous trouble with comprehension of reading and writing.

The NAAL 5-year study provided data to clearly show how only 18 to 21% of the population qualifies as being highly literate. Level 1, the lowest on the scale was 21 to 23%. Among the lower literacy levels are the youth of America, particularly those who did not graduate high school or get their GEDs. Hispanics, Blacks, Native Americans, and Asians/Pacific Islands, also ranked high in lower literacy levels.

Why is this a problem?

We live in a very literate age. Even for the most menial of jobs, you have to fill in an application. There are forms everywhere requiring not simply reading skills but comprehension. If you have low literacy skills you face problems that affect the nature of your life – at work and at home. How can you

• Make sure you fill in the right forms?
• Write a letter?
• Read to your children or help them with their homework?
• Learn about important issues in your city and country?
• Get a better paying job?

If someone wants to do more than survive in this century, it requires more than level 1 literacy. Literacy rates matter. The United States has not improved in their levels over the past decades. Educators and government need to recognize the problem and address it. This will ensure a better future for everyone.

Sources: NCES,,

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Mary Brown

Mary Brown

Mary Brown has enjoyed writing about education and finance related topics, such as scholarships, student loans, college, vocational degree choices, and adult education since the early 2000's. She also writes about school budgets, accreditation and fundraising.


  1. Sam
    April 19, 2018 at 8:13 am — Reply

    It is shocking to note that only 20% of the U.S students are getting or affording their higher education. It is overwhelmingly shocking to note that even basic education in the U.S is moderately costly and unaffordable as 14% of the US population lives in poverty. It is pitiable that such a mighty nation cannot afford it students and youngsters a “free education” and eventually I feel an average American is not aware the value of education more specifically being an above average literate.

    What is the use of being the richest country when the same country denies “free education” to all American Citizens shows how rich are becoming richer and poor are becoming poverty stricken.

    Knowledge and education to know about technology and right way of Agricultural forming can be imbibed only by learning and experience and it is high time the U.S. should consider free education and also a fair education to all in order to live a decent life and to understand what the main stream politicians do at the helm of affairs.
    God Bless Americans.

  2. DNA
    September 29, 2013 at 8:02 am — Reply

    You cannot help anyone who won’t help themselves, no matter how hard you try.

  3. June R. Marsh Jones
    June 29, 2013 at 6:42 pm — Reply

    I am an after school/summer school teacher. I also teach GED to the women of the shelter I work at. Maybe they’re afraid of the unknown, maybe they’ve been programmed by society. I have the hardest time getting the women to, not only get basic education help for themselves so that they can attain their GED, I also can’t get them to allow their children to attend the after school or summer school sessions which greatly improves their children academically.

    I’ve never seen people run to protect and valiantly defend themselves and their families from education the way I’ve seen members of the homeless population do. I offer all sorts of incentives, (food, money, toys, certificates), yet these mothers will travel across town and leave their children with a friend or a family member who is having a party on their block before they will let the children come to the program and practice their math skills, participate in science experiments, learn how to write paragraphs and papers or take educational trips and make journal entries about their experiences. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

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