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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Illiteracy Definitions Vary, May Understate Problem in U.S.

Today, when I was posting my first tweet, I found a new website called Room to Read (  This non-profit organization builds libraries and promotes literacy in countries around the world. I was impressed with the group's accomplishments and noble and beneficent efforts, but what are the U.S. illiteracy rates? What about adults?

I discovered that the meaning of literacy -- and conversely illiteracy -- is as varied as the organizations dealing with the issue.  The United Nations defines illiteracy as "the inability to read and write a simple message in any language."  When this standard is applied, the illiteracy rate in the US is only 1%, according to an article on the website.  Too good to be true? I think the definition is deceivingly simplistic and misleading.

Statistics from a 2003 study published by The U.S. Dept.of  Education, and included in a January 2009 article on by Robert Roy Britt, show that 14% of adults lack "basic prose literacy skill" that renders them unable to "read a newspaper or the instruction on a bottle of pills."

According to, the site for the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, there 40 million illiterate and low-literate adults in this country.  That translates to 13% of the population, given a figure of 312 million. However, I found no definition on their site or other details that back up the

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) provides this definition:  "Literacy is the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential."  Their 2003 assessment showed that 30 million -- or 14% -- of the adult population had only the very basic level of literary skills.

After researching, I finally find two sources that agree.  The remaining question, though, is what do we do to improve the 14% adult illiteracy rate in our country?

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