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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.