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Night Desk:

Head of Production:

A.B. Credaro

A.B. Credaro



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A.B. Credaro

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A.B. Credaro



Amanda Credaro © 2004
Commissioned by Editorial Eye.
Published Editorial Eye 27 (4), pp 1-4.

A few short years ago, the world was quite rightly shocked at UNESCO’s¹ announcement that there were 900 million illiterates in developing countries, representing nearly 25 per cent of the world’s youth and adults. The National Institute for Literacy (NIL) sympathised, lamenting that than 113 million children around the world have no access to primary education.

Largely ignored was the fact that nearly a quarter of 16 to 65-year-olds in the world's richest countries are functionally illiterate. However, the NIL proclaimed² “there is virtually no adult illiteracy in the USA”. Yet, the most recent National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) found that four percent of [American] adults could not perform even the simplest literacy tasks on the survey; a contention that is supported by the Central Intelligence Agency³ in their online World Fact Book.

Significance of Literacy Levels

Why quibble about a 4% disparity? This represents millions people who have voting rights; a number large enough to make a significant impact at the ballot box. Beyond the immediacy of national governance, national literacy levels have implications regarding a country’s future. As noted in the highlights from the final report of the International Adult Literacy Survey4 literacy skills are required for “personal development through improved participation in society and the labor market.

Literacy also contributes to the economic and social performance of society. It is a necessary ingredient for citizenship and community participation, and shapes the labor force of a country through higher participation rates, higher skill composition and lower chances of unemployment”.

Extent of Adult Illiteracy in the USA

Of great concern is the fact that the acknowledged 4% may be a ‘conservative’ estimate, to say the least. Other studies conducted by non-US agencies have placed the estimate of adult illiteracy at closer to 10%. Across the country, adult literacy classes are jammed beyond capacity.

The Outreach Programs of the New York Public Library enrolls around 1,000 adults per year in their literacy-tutoring program, mentored by volunteers, with another 500 accessing their self-paced digital lessons via computer. A further 2,000 are in group tuition with professional language teachers. Almost every major city has similar programs, often facilitated by the district library system.

Ken English, the Director of the Adult Literacy Program in New York Public Library reports5 that about 60% of those enrolling in these programs come from non-English speaking backgrounds. The population of New York City has approximately 45% people for whom English is not their first language.

However, country of origin or first-language other than English cannot be cited for low adult literacy. Knoxville, Tennessee, is not noted for a high percentage of immigrants. But their “Mom, Dad and Me” literacy program which addresses literacy for whole families – for whom English is their first language – is also filled beyond capacity.

Global Adult Illiteracy

Although few would be surprised at the existence of any adult illiteracy in Central Africa or remote outposts of what may be labeled ‘civilization’, the perhaps unpalatable truth lies much closer to home. The CIA World Fact Book indicates that Australia has zero illiteracy, and yet once again, adult literacy classes are overwhelmed with applicants. Jean Searle of Griffith University remarks that until the public awareness campaigns of the 1970’s brought adult literacy to the attention of the media, the government officially claimed there was no adult illiteracy in Australia.

In Britain, the latest Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)6 study on 16 to 65-year-olds, finds that 22% of the population in England and Wales is functionally illiterate compared to 25% in Ireland and 20% in France, but still out performed the USA. Across Europe, around 10% of the population falls into the low skills category, according to the International Adult Literacy Survey, carried out and published by the (UK) Office for National Statistics.

There is great irony in the statement from Agenta Lind7, which observes, “although adult literacy is still greatly under researched, it is much better documented” than previously.

Youth Literacy

Whilst authorities continue to downplay the extent of adult illiteracy, there is specific cause for concern regarding the lack of acknowledgement of the deficiencies in youth literacy rates. Australia’s Swinburne University lecturer Cate Thompson developed an education alternative to adult literacy classes, after noticing an increasing number of teens in her adult literacy classes.

The National Institute for Literacy's activities to “strengthen literacy across the lifespan” are mandated by the U.S. Congress under two laws, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) in the Workforce Investment Act and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This is the organization that claims there is no illiteracy in the USA. However, according to the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, nearly half of high school seniors are unable to compose a paragraph of prose.8

In the 2003 ‘Nation’s Report Card,’ published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, stated that there was “no significant change” detected for fourth-grade reading scores since 19929, although eighth-graders did show an overall gain in score levels. Notably, there is little information on how the 1992 scores compared to global trends or earlier studies.

Again, around the world there is disparity between officially acknowledged literacy rates, “in-house” testing, and those indicated by impartial research. Whilst Australia does not have a national assessment scheme, the state of New South Wales annually tests students’ ability to read and write in grades 5 and 7. The cumulative results are not made public, with individual schools receiving results only for students enrolled in that school.

However, highly selective partial results are released. For the 2003 testing period, it was reported that students with a non-English speaking background (NESB) outperformed their native-speaking counterparts, which apparently baffled a number of academics. Dr Maureen Walsh, a senior lecturer in literacy education at the Australian Catholic University, proposed that children who spoke another language at home had a cognitive advantage with literacy skills10. Other theorists postulated that the intensive language training provided to NESB students accounted for their outstanding results.

Whilst the state’s Department of Education was effervescent in self-congratulations, the (Australian) federal Minister for Education Brendan Nelson allocated an additional AUD$4.8 million dollars for targeted literacy programs, stating that it was unacceptable that some of the literacy results were “worse than 25 years ago”.

Interestingly, literacy expert Professor Mary Kalantzis, the president of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, was reported to have stated, “State-wide tests were political tools”. In the twilight weeks of February 2004, the U.S. Congress amended the No Child Left Behind school laws. No longer would recent non-native English immigrant’s literacy scores be included in cumulative results. This will have an immediate impact, by raising all test-score averages. Incidentally, it so denies the opportunity to readily identify areas where programs and funding need to be targeted.

Beyond the manipulation of figures, there is an exponentially increasing body of research that indicates the rapidly decreasing validity of current testing methods.

Methods of Testing

The disparity between published literacy rates, and real-life indicators, is repeated throughout the western world. In fact, UNESCO’s Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Program noted that most data on adult literacy are not reliable. Generally, they rely either on individuals’ self-declaration of their own literacy or on “proxy” indicators such as their educational levels. These are indirect measures, which have been shown not to reflect reality very accurately.

In identifying “America’s Most Literate City”11, the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater based their study on13 variables, grouped into 5 factors: Educational attainment, book sellers, newspaper circulation, library usage, and periodicals published. Using these criteria, they calculated that Minneapolis, Minnesota had scored best over all, and those centers most often viewed as ‘literate’, such as Boston and New York, scored 13 and 48th place respectively. However, this particular study only considered 64 cities across America.

The OCED study considered functional literacy as the ability to complete real-life tasks, such as reading and understand brochures, train timetables, road maps, and simple instructions for household appliances. In educational testing, these skills are often considered in isolation, due to the nature of the test.

There are currently three dominant models of formal testing of literacy commonly used in schools12; grades, standardized tests, and portfolios. Grades awarded in class, years, or even across states can be highly subjective. Standardized tests are open to manipulation, and maximize the dictum inadvertently articulated by George W. Bush “teach the children to read, and you teach them to pass literacy tests”.

Portfolio assessment, which became a bandwagon onto which many climbed at the end of last century, is proving to provide little more than an indication of a student’s presentation ability.

However, some countries have opted for a more comprehensive examination of literacy. In New Zealand13, literacy testing in schools considers reading rate, error rate, strategy rates, comprehension, self-correction rate, and oral fluency within set passages of text.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the assessment of literacy is firstly to define the term. At its most simple level, literacy has been considered to be the ability to read and write. At higher levels, it is considered to be the ability to communicate effectively and interpret information in written form. The issue is exacerbated by the debate as to what is meant by ‘functional’ literacy, and an ever-increasing proliferation of other illiteracies.

Whilst beyond the scope of this article to discuss the implications of different types of literacy14, it is of particular interest to note the National Geographic Survey of geographical literacy . “Despite the daily bombardment of news from the Middle East, Central Asia, and other world trouble spots, roughly 85 percent of young Americans could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Israel on a map.” In fact, of the nine countries included in the survey, the United States came second last, outscoring only Mexico.


The good news is that globally, literacy skills in general are rising. The bad news is that the most notable inroads are being made in countries where literacy was previously at less than 30%. The International Reading Association has recognized outstanding literacy programs of the Dhaka Ahsania Mission of Bangladesh, and Fundación Alfabetizadora Laubach, based in Medellín, Colombia. For regions that were previously without schools or teachers, the answer is simply funding. Over the last decade, Africa has managed to reduce the continent’s illiteracy rate by 5.4%, and Asia by 2.8%.

However, for ‘the world’s richest countries’, already well supplied with schools and teachers, the answer is not as simple. In the last 10 years, America’s illiteracy rate has fallen by a mere 1.2%. Parents are blaming school systems; school systems are pointing the finger at state and federal funding programs. Legislators are accusing educational authorities and demanding new and different curricula. The educational authorities in turn are suggesting that parents and caregivers take more responsibility for literacy in the home.

Does research have an answer?

The research15 shows that there is a correlation between educational achievement and literacy standards. However, one does not automatically dictate the other. There are graphs that show that Americans are more likely to be capable of high-level reading tasks if they have completed upper secondary school or post secondary education. Yet some graduates show poor literacy skills, and some upper secondary school dropouts are highly literate.

There is also a correlation between socio-economic background and literacy attainment. However, this is not a causal relationship. Being well fed and having multiple options in life does not actually result in a high level of literacy – it is a byproduct of it.

To date, the most pertinent research on this topic was that resulting from what were originally known as ‘The Colorado Studies’16. Now entering its third decade, and covering three continents, this line of research has repeatedly proven that the quality of school library services is a critical factor in literacy levels. In addition to the size and age of the school’s library collection, the training of personnel, funding for programs, and even timetabling of learning opportunities are major factors in achievement.

So the answer to increasing global literacy may not be as complicated as first thought. A wide selection of reading material to cater to different developmental stages and individual interests; ease of access; an opportunity to read the subject material of choice; plus an appropriate amount of professional guidance.

Some countries are experimenting with alternative strategies. It remains to be seen if Mexico’s most recent scheme for combating illiteracy – giving away 1.8 million books to rail commuters –is effective.

Of the last decade, McGill University’s Helen Amoriggi comments17 that while printing and publishing technology has galloped forward, churning out millions of words per second, the “human reading rate has remained the same since the days of Sheng Pi and Gutenberg”.

Ultimately, is would appear that the solution to the global literacy problem is most easily solved by providing adequate funding support for school and other libraries. Given the skill, training and experience of library staff, it is self-evident that library professionals are ideally placed to provide user-friendly access to high quality, high interest reading material for their unique sets of clientele.

Although Library Science may not be rocket science, only a fraction of the funding that is expended on space exploration is required to make a massive leap forward to the quality of life and cultural implications of citizenship.


Listing by country of adult illiteracy. 2004 OECD figures.

Student Performance against Benchmarks. 2004 figures from the Australian Department of Education, Science and Training.

Education Level vs national productivity (see page 8 of this pdf document). 2004 OECD figures.

(More to be added when time permits)


1 UNESCO (2000) World Education for All Conference. [online]

2 National Institute for Literacy (2000). International Literacy Day [online]

3 Central Intelligence Agency (2004) World Fact Book: Literacy. [online]

4 National Adult Literacy Database (2004) Literacy in the Information Age - Skills for the Twenty-first century. [online]

5 English, Ken (2004) NYPL Adult Literacy Classes. Personal Email to A. B. Credaro February 13, 2004.

6 (UK) National Literacy Trust (2000) Literacy Standards in the Western World. [online]

7 Lind, Agenta (1997) Adult Literacy in the Third World - A Review of Trends a Decade Later. [online]

8 Writing Commission (2004) The neglected “R”: the need for a writing revolution. [online]

9 NSW Department of Education and Training (2004). English Language and Assessment. [online]

10 Doherty, Linda (2003) Migrant’s children are best at English. [online]

11 University of Wisconson – Whitewater (2003) America’s Most Literate City. [online]

12 Barr and Syverson (2003) How does the Learning Record Model Compare with Existing Methods of Measurement in Assessing Student Literacy Learning? [online]

13 Anthony, G. & Walshaw, M. (2003) Oral reading achievements, strategies and personal characteristics of New Zealand primary school students reading below normal expectation. [online]

14 National Geographic (2003) Geographic Literacy. [online]

15 UNESCO (2003) USA Literacy Rates Vs Educational Attainment [online]

16 Australian Council of Educational Research (2003) Impact of School Libraries on Achievement [online]

17 Amoriggi, Helen (2003) Shocking Results: Ten-year International Reading Research Study. Paper delivered at the 2003 International Conference on the Future of the Book [online]

Page created October 8, 2004
To correctly cite this page:
Credaro, A.B. (2004). Global literacy in the 21st Century: Ataxia within the Republic of Letters?
Warrior Librarian Weekly. [online] [insert YOUR date of access]