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Indicator V-1 Adult Literacy
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
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Updated (12/11/09) with data from the Adult Literacy & Lifeskills Survey (ALL). Administered in the US in 2003, ALL is the successor to the mid-1990s' International Adult Literacy Survey.

See the
Note on the Adult Literacy and Life Skills and International Adult Literacy Surveys Literacy Scales.

Although basic literacy rates have traditionally been an essential part of any statistical description of a country, such figures have lost their utility for wealthy nations because the rudimentary skills they measure are so widespread. The 99% basic literacy rate for the United States,1 for example, sheds little light on the extent to which American adults are able to integrate information from multiple sources or make inferences from written materials, skills they need to fully participate in an increasingly complex society.

More revealing are measures that treat literacy as a continuous rather than a categorical variable—that is, measures that gauge degree of literacy rather than classifying people as either literate or nonliterate. Figures V-1a and V-1b present data from the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL), which assessed both the prose and document literacy of adults in a number of developed countries. (For an overview of the ALL and its predecessor, the International Adult Literacy Survey, please visit the National Center for Education Statistics website.) Prose literacy refers to the knowledge and skills needed to understand and use information from texts, including editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional manuals. Document literacy is the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various formats, including job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and charts. (See the Note on the Adult Literacy and Life Skills and International Adult Literacy Surveys Literacy Scales for a description of the skills associated with each of the ALL assessment scale’s five levels.)

Figure V-1a, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data
Figure V-1b, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

With 47% of its population possessing at least those prose literacy skills necessary for successful secondary school completion, the United States was in the bottom third of the international rankings,2 below such countries as Norway, Bermuda, and Canada, while outstripping Italy and the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon by substantial margins. In the mid-1990s the United States had one of the largest percentages of highly literate adults, 21.9%, among participating nations, but by 2003 that percentage had dropped to 12.8, with the percentage of Americans who demonstrated weak literacy skills increasing proportionately. This decline was the largest experienced by any nation. The next largest decrease, 5.1 percentage points, occurred among Italian-speaking Swiss. The only statistically significant increase in the percentage of highly prose literate adults, 4.4 percentage points, was found among German-speaking Swiss.

Americans’ performance on the document literacy assessment was similar to that on the prose literacy assessment, placing the United States again in the bottom third of the international rankings (Figure V-1b). The change between 1994 and 2003 was of the same character as that observed with prose literacy, but of a lesser magnitude. The proportion of Americans with higher-order skills declined by 5 percentage points, while the ranks of those with weak skills grew by 7.5 points. Such a decline in the percentage of adults demonstrating high levels of document literacy was also observed in Canada and both French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland, the latter experiencing the greatest drop of any group or nation included in the study, 9.6 percentage points.

1 By virtue of their limited usefulness, basic literacy data are not collected by the U.S. and other high- income nations. For the purposes of calculating its Human Development Index, the UN assigns a literacy rate of 99% to these countries (United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2007/2008 (New York: Palgrave, 2007); available online at

2 The data presented in Figures V-1a and V-1b are for those participating countries that had released their results by spring of 2009. Data for three additional participating countries—Hungary, South Korea, and The Netherlands—will be incorporated when they become available. The United Kingdom, Germany, and several other nations that participated in the International Adult Literacy Survey (the ALL’s predecessor, conducted in the mid-to-late 1990s) declined to administer the ALL.

Adult Literacy and Life Skills and International Adult Literacy Surveys Literacy Scales

Both assessments from which the data for this indicator were drawn employed a five- point scale to gauge adults’ literacy skills. For a detailed description of the skills associated with each level of the scale.

Source: Statistics Canada and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (Ottawa: Statistics Canada; Paris: OECD, 2005), table 1.1.

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