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Literacy IGCSE Global Perspectives
Literacy According to UNESCO’s 1958 definition, the term refers to the ability of an individual to read and write with understanding a simple short statement related to his/her everyday life. Literate/illiterate The term refers to a person who can/cannot read and write with understanding a simple statement related to his/her everyday life.
Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying context. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.
Literacy rate The percentage of the population 15 years and older who can read and write. Adult literacy rate Number of literate persons aged 15 and above, expressed as a percentage of the total population in that age group. Youth literacy rate Number of literate persons aged 15 to 24, expressed as a percentage of the total population in that age group.
Estimates of adult illiterates and literacy rates (population aged 15+) by region, 1990 and 2000—2004
World map indicating literacy by country Grey = no data
The vast majority of the 771 million adults who lack minimal literacy skills live in three regions: South and West Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, three-quarters of the world’s illiterate population live in just twelve countries.
Change in the illiterate population, 1990 to 2000—2004, in countries with the greatest numbers of illiterates
Adult (15 and over) illiteracy rates and numbers, by region, 2000-2007 The illiteracy rate is calculated as 100 minus the literacy rate.
Factors affecting literacy Women are significantly less likely to be literate than men. Age is nearly always a significant factor, with older people more likely to be illiterate than younger people (this relationship is weaker than the association with gender). In most countries household size was not associated with literacy; however, in a limited number of cases, individuals living in larger households are less likely to be literate. Individuals from wealthier households are more likely to be literate than those from poorer households, but the strength and significance of this association vary. Urban residents are more likely to be literate than rural residents, although this factor is weaker than others. Whether or not an individual ever went to school has the strongest and most significant effect on literacy. Between the remaining two school variables – grouped years of schooling (e.g. 0, 1–3, 4–6) and the highest grade achieved – the latter is more important than the former.
Functional literacy In 1978, UNESCO’s General Conference adopted a definition of functional literacy – still in use today – which states: ‘A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community’s development.’ Functional literacy is the ability to use reading, writing and numeracy skills for effective functioning and development of the individual and the community.
Rich countries - poor literacy
This section focuses on illiteracy in poor countries, but rich countries also have significant pockets of deprivation. Many adults lack the functional literacy skills they need to apply for jobs, read newspapers or understand documents - on housing, health and the education of children, for example - that affect their lives:
In France, an estimated 9% of people aged 18 to 65 lacks the basic reading, writing, arithmetic and other fundamental skills required for simple everyday situations. In the Netherlands, 1.5 million adults (including 1 million native Dutch speakers) are classified as functionally illiterate, implying that they are not equipped to process basic information.
In the United States, 14% of the population lacks the literacy skills to perform simple, everyday tasks like understanding newspaper articles and instruction manuals. Around 12% lack the literacy skills needed to fill out a job application or understand labels on food and drugs. More than one in five — 22% of the population — has ‘below basic’ quantitative skills, finding it impossible to balance a chequebook or deduce from an advertisement the amount of interest on a loan. In England (United Kingdom), 1.7 million people (5% of those aged 16 to 65) perform below the level expected of 7-year-olds on the national curriculum test, and 5.1 million perform below the level expected of 11-year-olds.
Literacy problems in rich countries are often concentrated in areas of acute social disadvantage, among migrant groups and the poor. Illiteracy is a factor in low pay, insecure employment and social exclusion.
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