Adult Illiteracy in Developed Nations Essay

Cheap Custom Writing Service

The last decade of the 20th century witnessed an unprecedented concern for adult literacy in many developed nations. This concern was stimulated by the completion of the first International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), undertaken in the mid-1990s by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and a number of its member nations, and led to varying government responses. This entry presents the broad outlines of the IALS, its methodology, and general findings, with a focus on responses in three nations—Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The International Adult Literacy Survey

The IALS methodology was the same as that of the National Adult Literacy Survey of 1993 in the United States. Like that survey, the IALS changed the traditional practice of dividing adults into the dichotomy of “illiterate” and “literate” and instead discussed adult literacy as a continuum from very low literacy to very high literacy. Using the traditional division of adults into illiterate and literate, UNESCO reported illiteracy rates of just 1 to 2 percent for developed nations in the mid-1990s. But using the methodology of the IALS, the percentages of adults in developed nations with very low literacy skills, which earlier would have been called “functional illiteracy,” were 10 times as high as the estimates of illiteracy given by UNESCO.

IALS developers defined literacy as using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential. Then, using door-to-door sampling methods, the IALS assessed the literacy skills of adults ages 16 through 65. The IALS developed performance scales composed of tasks for Prose Literacy (e.g., reading text materials such as newspapers, poetry); Document Literacy (e.g., scanning and completing forms or using a train schedule); and Quantitative Literacy (e.g., determining the amount of a tip for a restaurant meal or reviewing a bank statement). Scores on these three scales assign adults to one of five literacy levels (level 1 = very low; level 5 = very high literacy).

For 21 nations assessed in the IALS the percentages of native-born adults in the lowest level of literacy ranged from around 5 percent in Sweden to a high of over 50 percent in Chile, with an average for the 21 nations of about 20 percent on the Prose, Document, and Quantitative Literacy scales. Thus, on average, about one fifth of native-born adults ages 16 to 65 in these developed countries were considered to be “at risk” for social problems because of their low literacy. For foreign-born adults, the percentages were uniformly higher, averaging over 50 percent with Prose, Document, and Quantitative Literacy scores falling in the lowest level of literacy.

Using the Document performance tasks for illustrative purposes, with native- and non-native-born adults combined, 23.7 percent of United States adults ages 16 to 65 fell into the lowest level of literacy, while in Canada this percentage was 18.2, and 23.3 percent in the United Kingdom. Similar percentages, with a little variation, held for the assignment of adults to literacy level 1 on the Prose and Quantitative Literacy scales.

Self-Perceived Literacy and Numeracy Skills

Based on results of the literacy performance tests, about one fifth of adults ages 16 to 65 in the focal nations of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States were considered to be at risk for social problems such as unemployment, underemployment, low income, poverty, and poor health due to low literacy. This would come to about 3.3 million adults in Canada, 7.4 million in the United Kingdom, and 32 million in the United States.

However, the IALS did not use only literacy tests to measure adult literacy. Additionally, the IALS developed a scale for the adults’ self-assessment of their literacy ability. In this case adults were asked to rate how well they thought their literacy skills matched their needs for these skills at work or in daily life. In making these judgments, adults used the rating categories of poor, moderate, good, excellent, and no response.

Using the adults’ self-assessments of their reading abilities for work and daily life, less than 5 percent of adults ages 16 to 65 in either Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States rated their reading as poor. Using a 5 percent estimate for these three nations, some 8 million adults in the United States, less than 1 million in Canada, and less than 2 million in the United Kingdom considered themselves at risk for poor reading skills. Similar results held for self-assessments of writing and numeracy skills.

In the IALS, then, adults’ estimates of their reading ability revealed a considerable discrepancy between the literacy skills as measured by the performance tests and the self-assessments in determining the numbers of adults at risk for poor literacy in these three nations. This discrepancy also occurred in other nations.

Efforts to Increase Access to Adult Literacy Education Programs

For the three developed nations discussed in the previous sections, there were considerable differences in the percentages of adults considered to be at risk and hence in need of literacy or basic skills instruction based on IALS test data and the actual numbers of adults who seek out and enroll in literacy programs. In Canada, for instance, studies reported that only 5 to 10 percent of adults eligible for literacy education had ever enrolled in literacy courses. Some 43 percent of Canadians who sought information about literacy programs did not enroll because of program- or policy-related problems, such as not being called back after calling a literacy telephone hotline, long waiting lists, inconvenient course times, wrong content or teaching structure, and unhelpful program content.

In the United Kingdom, the IALS assigned around 23 percent of adults to literacy level 1 (some 8,000,000 adults) while participants in adult literacy programs around that time included less than 5 percent of that number. To increase access to provision, the United Kingdom set as a target the reduction by 750,000 of the number of adults who had difficulty with literacy and numeracy by 2004. To meet these targets the government set aside up to £1.5 billion over a 3-year period and created a number of special programs for adults.

To determine what might motivate adults with poor basic skills to seek to improve them, the Basic Skills Agency of the United Kingdom conducted a study called Getting Better Basic Skills. The research focused on adults’ perceptions of their skills, why they wanted to improve their skills, their access to learning programs, the content of the programs, and what would encourage them to try and improve their skills. Significant findings showed a third of adults thought that their basic skills needed improving, 29 percent said they would definitely take up a basic skills course, and 42 percent said they would probably do so. Factors motivating adults to improve their basic skills included being able to learn on a computer, being able to improve computer skills and basic skills at the same time, getting an education qualification, and being able to attend a course near home.

In the United States, less than 3 million adults enroll annually in the adult education and literacy programs that are funded jointly by the federal government in partnership with the 50 states. Following the National Adult Literacy Survey and the IALS, no special efforts with major funding were undertaken to reach adults with literacy needs in the United States.

In 2003, the OECD conducted a new international survey of adult literacy skills, the Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey. The report of the survey was released in 2005 and indicated that for the most part, there had been little or no improvement in adult literacy skills since the initial IALS in the mid-1990s.


  1. Blunkett, David. 2001. Skills for Life: The National Strategy for Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy Skills. London: Department for Education and Skills.
  2. Long, Ellen. 2000. Who Wants to Learn? Toronto, ON: ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation.
  3. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 1995. “Literacy, Economy and Society: Results of the First International Adult Literacy Survey.” Paris: OECD.
  4. Statistics Canada. 2005. “Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (
  5. Sticht, Thomas G. 2001. “The International Adult Literacy Survey: How Well Does It Represent the Literacy Abilities of Adults?” Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education 15:19-36.
  6. Tuijnman, A. 2000. Benchmarking Adult Literacy in America: An International Comparative Study. Jessup, MD: U.S. Department of Education, Education Publications Center.

This example Adult Illiteracy in Developed Nations Essay is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need a custom essay or research paper on this topic please use our writing services. offers reliable custom essay writing services that can help you to receive high grades and impress your professors with the quality of each essay or research paper you hand in.

See also:


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality

Special offer!