Definition and Meaning of Illiteracy

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Illiteracy is the quality or condition of being unable to read or write.

Illiteracy is a major problem throughout the world. According to Anne-Marie Trammell, "Worldwide, 880 million adults have been labeled as illiterate, and in the United States it is estimated that almost 90 million adults are functionally illiterate, that is to say that they do not have the minimal skills needed to function in society" (Encyclopedia of Distance Learning, 2009).

In England, says a report from the National Literacy Trust, "Around 16 percent, or 5.2 million adults, can be described as 'functionally illiterate.' They would not pass an English GCSE and have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old" ("Literacy: State of the Nation," 2014). 


"The subculture of illiteracy is larger than anyone on the outside would ever believe. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) conducted a study of illiteracy among adults in the United States in 2003, the results of which were released in December 2005. NAAL found that 43 percent of the total population aged 16 and older, or some 93 million people, ranked at the below-basic or basic level in their reading skills. Fourteen percent of the adult population had below-basic skills in reading and understanding prose texts, a percentage that was unchanged from 1992 when the first NAAL report was released."
"The gap between the 43 percent at below-basic and basic prose literacy and the 57 percent at intermediate and proficient raises the question: How can those at lower levels compete in a world that demands increasing literacy skills? Not surprisingly, the NAAL study found that among adults with below-basic prose literacy, 51 percent were not in the labor force." (John Corcoran, The Bridge to Literacy. Kaplan, 2009)

Illiteracy and the Internet

"As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading, diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books."
"But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write." (Motoko Rich, "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" The New York Times, July 27, 2008)

Literacy as a Continuum of Skills

"Illiteracy has fallen from one in five people to almost nonexistent over a century and a bit. But 'illiteracy' clearly isn’t a single on-or-off switch. It’s not just 'you can read and write or you can’t.' Literacy is a continuum of skills. Basic education now reaches virtually all Americans. But many among the poorest have the weakest skills in formal English."
"That combines with another fact: more people are writing than ever before. Even most of the poor today have cell phones and internet. When they text or scribble on Facebook, they’re writing. We easily forget that this is something that farmhands and the urban poor almost never did in centuries past. They lacked the time and means even if they had the education." (Robert Lane Greene, "Schott's Vocab Guest Post: Robert Lane Greene on Language Sticklers." The New York Times, March 8, 2011)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Meaning of Illiteracy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Definition and Meaning of Illiteracy. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Meaning of Illiteracy." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).