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illiteracy, inability to meet a certain minimum criterion of reading and writing skill.
Definition of Illiteracy
The exact nature of the criterion varies, so that illiteracy must be defined in each case
before the term can be used in a meaningful way. In 1930 the U.S. Bureau of the
Census defined as illiterate any person over ten years of age who was unable to read
and write in any language. By the next census (1940), however, the concept of
"functional" illiteracy was adopted, and any person with less than five years of schooling
was considered functionally illiterate, or unable to engage in social activities in which
literacy is assumed.
Since that time, the concept of functional illiteracy has grown in popularity among
American educators, but the standards of definition have changed with the increasing
complexity of most social activities. Thus, by 1970, the U.S. Office of Education
considered at least six years of schooling (and sometimes as many as eight) to be the
minimum criterion for functional literacy. In 1990 over 5% of the adult population living in
the United States did not meet that criterion.
World Illiteracy Rates
The United Nations, which defines illiteracy as the inability to read and write a simple
message in any language, has conducted a number of surveys on world illiteracy. In the
first survey (1950, pub. 1957) at least 44% of the world's population were found to be
illiterate. A 1978 study showed the rate to have dropped to 32.5%, by 1990 illiteracy
worldwide had dropped to about 27%, and by 1998 to 16%. However, a study by the
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) published in 1998 predicted that the world
illiteracy rate would increase in the 21st cent. because only a quarter of the world's
children were in school by the end of the 20th cent. The highest illiteracy rates were
found in the less developed nations of Africa, Asia, and South America; the lowest in
Australia, Japan, North Korea, and the more technologically advanced nations of
Europe and North America. Using the UN definition of illiteracy, the United States and
Canada have an overall illiteracy rate of about 1%. In certain disadvantaged areas,

however, such as the rural South in the United States, the illiteracy rate is much higher.
Combating Illiteracy
Direct attacks on illiteracy take two main forms: adult education and the establishment
of public schools with compulsory attendance for children. In the United States, several
federal programs have been instituted to combat adult illiteracy; universal public
education has almost eliminated illiteracy among the young. Soldiers have been used
effectively in Turkey and Mexico as instructors for the general populace.
Throughout most of history most people have been illiterate. In feudal society, for
example, the ability to read and write was of value only to the clergy and aristocracy.
The first known reference to "literate laymen" did not appear until the end of the 14th
cent. Illiteracy was not seen as a problem until after the invention of printing in the 15th
cent. The first significant decline in illiteracy came with the Reformation, when
translation of the Bible into the vernacular became widespread and Protestant converts
were taught to read it. Revolutionary political movements from the 18th to the 20th cent.
generally included an attack on illiteracy as one of their goals, with the former Soviet
Union, China, and Cuba being among the most successful in the 20th cent.
What exactly is illiteracy? An adult or adults with a reading incapacity, a lack of knowledge of a subject,
and/or a error in speech or writing according to Encarta World English Dictionary is a person or persons
with illiteracy. Ronald Nash the author of an on-line article entitled The Three Kinds of Illiteracy he
describes the three different types of illiteracy. Nash explains in detail cultural, moral, and functional
illiteracy in his article. Cultural illiteracy defined by E.D. Hirsch Jr. is to possess the basic information
needed to thrive in the modern world (Nash). Moral illiteracy is not being taught or lacked the education
and understandings in religious or spiritual beliefs (Nash). Functional illiteracy refers to the inability of an
individual to use reading, speaking, writing, and computational skills in everyday life (Literacy Center for
the Midlands). Functional illiteracy is probably the most familiar and known to the public out of the three.
Functional illiteracy is measured on a scale of five levels. Level one is an adult or adults who can read
a little, but not well enough to fill out an application, read a food label, or a simple story to a child (NIFL:
National Institute for Literacy- Frequently Asked Questions). Level two adult or adults can perform more
complex tasks such as comparing and contrasting a situation (NIFL: National Institute for LiteracyFrequently Asked Questions). Level three to level five adult or adults usually perform the same types of
more complex tasks on increasingly lengthy and dense texts and documents (NIFL: National Institute for
Literacy- Frequently Asked Questions).

According to the A Untied Way Agency web page posts on-line article entitled The Scope of Illiteracy in
this Country, 23% of adults who were surveyed by the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), were at
level one illiteracy. 25%- 28% of the adults surveyed were at the second lowest level, that is level two (The
Scope of Illiteracy in this Country). This information was released to the public in September 1993, but the
survey was complete in 1992 (Literacy Center for the Midlands-Facts on Illiteracy). This survey measured
three areas that included: pose, documentation, and quantitative proficiency (Literacy Center for the
Midlands-Facts on Illiteracy).
Through many studies it has shown that illiteracy has a significant impact on the economy (Economic
Impact of Illiteracy in this Country). The American Council of Life Insurance reports that three quarters of
the Fortune 500 companies provide some level of remedial training for their workers (Economic Impact of
Illiteracy in this Country). According to Economic Impact of Illiteracy in this Country an online article
reports that a study done by the Northeast Midwest Institute and The Center for Regional Policy found
business losses attribute to basic skills deficiencies run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. This is due
to the low productivity, errors, and accidents that occur on the job (Economic Impact of Illiteracy in this
Country). Some think that illiteracy may be the cause of many deaths that occur (Illiteracy) About 30% of
2,659 patients had inadequate comprehension of the written instructions on the prescription bottles
according to an on-line article entitled Illiteracy.
America has many affected areas which illiteracy maybe larger than anyone may seem to think. In
Mississippi, the worst ranked state in America, about every third person is placed at level one illiteracy
(Roberts). Roberts reports in the state of Michigan that 18% of adults, nearly one in five, were functionally
illiterate. In Detroit, Michigan 47% of its residents scored level one in the National Institute for Literacy
(NIL) Survey (Roberts).
The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) will be holding a national survey in the year 2002
(NAAL 2002: Overview). This survey is an in-person survey that includes an assessment of Englishlanguage literacy skills and a computer assisted interview to collect background information (NAAL
2002:Overview). Also this survey will measure the ability to use printed or written materials to perform
prose, documentation, and quantitative tasks that simulate real-life experiences (NAAL 2002: Overview).
This survey will compare its results with the 1992 NAAL survey (NAAL 2002:Overview).
There is not one specific reason on the cause for illiteracy (The Reasons for Adult Illiteracy). An on-line
article entitled The Reasons for Adult Illiteracy states that a person might have left school early and not
received a good education to comprehend some text formats. Also a person may have a physical or
emotional disability that makes it harder for he/she to learn (The Reasons for Adult Illiteracy). Other
factors that could contribution to the causes are ineffective teachers or the person may have been
unready at the time reading instruction began (The Reasons for Adult Illiteracy). These are just a few
reasons why a person may have an illiteracy problem; many other factors can be affiliated to the causes.
When a child is ready to learn introduce the material slowly and make the information fun and appealing
to him or her. The one way to eliminate illiteracy for the children of the future is to start now and build each
of them a future that is promising.
What are some causes and effects of illiteracy?
IF we can send a people to the moon, should not every person on earth have the ability and
opportunity to read and write well? Knowing how to read and write, or being literate, is a

prerequisite for succeeding in todays technologically advanced and quickly evolving global
society. Every person needs to acquire literacy in his/her early development, because
reading and writing are useful skills in so many daily activities, from reading newspapers,
medicine bottles, and product warning labels, to writing letters, emails, and reports. Being
literate also develops the mind, imagination, and critical thinking skills. However, many
people in the world are not literate, and many do not even have the opportunity to become
literate in their lifetime. In fact, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the international organization
that collects data for the United Nations, estimated in 2004 that 800 million people (nearly 1
in 6 people in the world) are illiterate, and more than 65% of that number are women. This
number is increasing as well, due to the high birth rates in illiterate societies. Therefore, in
order to understand more about this significant phenomenon, a few of the causes, effects,
and solutions to illiteracy will be discussed.

One of the major causes of illiteracy is poverty and the subsequent lack of access to reading
and writing materials. Realistically, students who would have gone on to continue their
education past the 5th year sometimes quit school in order to work on the farm or in a
factory in order to assist with the family income. Also if a family is poor, food and the basic
necessities of life take precedence before books can be purchased. Related to this issue is
Maslows theory on the hierarchy of needs. Maslow, a well-known psychologist, wrote that
people deprived of basic needs, such as shelter, food, clothes, and basic safety, are less
likely to develop themselves with higher education (University of Tennessee Website, 2004).
In other words, economic instability can affect the ability of a population to become literate.

The effects of illiteracy often negatively impact a nations ability to develop its human
resources. Countries with a high illiteracy rate are more likely to be disadvantaged in the
global economy. If a populace is not literate, it cannot be as involved in high tech jobs. New
careers in the sciences, mathematics, and technology are primarily established in countries
that have literate populations. Another major effect of illiteracy is not having access to basic
information that is distributed via books, newspapers, or the Internet. This type of
information could include practical advice to increase the quality of life, such as how to
participate in microfinance projects. In short, illiteracy does not encourage positive social
change, personal growth, or the preservation and development of language and culture.

How can illiteracy be overcome? One of the best solutions to solving the stubborn problem of
literacy is to teach parents to read, so that they can in turn teach their children. In a
document published by the Departments of Education of Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, and
others, Judith Schickendanz explains that Children learn about written language in a
socially mediated way. Children also learn about the functions of written language as they
observe and help parents make lists, write letter to family members or friends, or read
menus in a restaurant (1999). If the adult women are educated first, each generation will
be able to read and write, since mothers are the first educators of children. The women will
teach their children, both male and female, who will in turn teach their children. Once more
people in a society are literate, that society tends to develop further capacities, and further
value literacy.