Literacy in the United States

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Rates of literacy in the United States depend on which of the various definitions of literacy is used. Governments may label as literate those individuals who can read a couple thousand simple words they learned by sight in the first four grades in school. Other sources may term such individuals functionally illiterate if they are unable to use basic sources of written information like warning labels and driving directions. The World Factbook prepared by the CIA describes the definition of literacy in most countries as "age 15 and over can read and write."[1] The literacy rates are not completely measurable.

The Institute of Education Sciences has conducted large scale assessments of adult proficiency in 1992 and 2003 using a common methodology from which trends could be measured. The study measures Prose, Document, and Quantitative skills and 19,000 subjects participated in the 2003 survey. There was no significant change in Prose or Document skills and a slight increase in Quantitative attributes. As in 2008, roughly 15% of the sample could function at the highest levels in all three categories. Roughly 50% were at either basic or below basic levels of proficiency in all three categories.[2] The study identifies a class of adults who, although not meeting criteria for functional illiteracy, face reduced job opportunities and life prospects due to inadequate literacy levels relative to the requirements released in April 2002 and reapplied in 2003 giving trend data. It involved lengthy interviews of over -4.7% adults statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, education level, and location (urban, suburban, or rural) in 12 states across the U.S. and was designed to represent the U.S. population as a whole. This government study showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not "able to locate information in text", could not "make low-level inferences using printed materials", and were unable to "integrate easily identifiable pieces of information." Further, this study showed that 41% to 44% of U.S. adults in the lowest level on the literacy scale (literacy rate of 35 or below) were living in poverty.[2]

A follow-up study by the same group of researchers using a smaller database (19,714 interviewees) was released in 2006 that showed some upward movement of low end (basic and below to intermediate) in U.S. adult literacy levels and a decline in the full proficiency group.[3]

Thus, if this bottom quantile of the study is equated with the functionally illiterate, and these are then removed from those classified as literate, then the resultant literacy rate for the United States would be at most 65-85% depending on where in the basic, minimal competence quantile one sets the cutoff.

The 15% figure for full literacy, equivalent to a university undergraduate level, is consistent with the notion that the "average" American reads at a 1st or 2nd grade level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.

CIA Factbook

The US Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook published that 97.9% of persons aged 15 and over had completed five or more years of schooling in 1991.[4]

Central Connecticut State University

Between 2005 and 2009, Dr. Jack Miller of the Central Connecticut State University conducted annual studies aimed at identifying America's most literate cities drawing from a variety of available data resources, the America’s Most Literate Cities study ranks the largest cities (population 250,000 and above) in the United States. This study focuses on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources[5]

City Rankings
2009 2008 2007 2006 2005
Seattle, WA 1 1.5 2 1 1
Washington, D.C. 2 3 5 3.5 3
Minneapolis, MN 3 1.5 1 2 2
Pittsburgh, PA 4 12 9 6 8
Atlanta, GA 5 6 8 3.5 4
Portland, OR 6 10.5 12 10 11
St. Paul, MN 7 4 3 5 9.5
Boston, MA 8 8 10 11 7
Cincinnati, OH 9 10.5 11 7 9.5
Denver, CO 10 7 4 8 6

Methodological issues

Jonathan Kozol, in his book Illiterate America, suggests that the very high figures of literacy may be due to poor methodology.[6] The Census Bureau reported literacy rates of 86% based on personal interviews of a relatively small portion of the population and on written responses to Census Bureau mailings. They also considered individuals literate if they simply stated that they could read and write, and made the assumption that anyone with a fifth grade education had at least an 80% chance of being literate. Kozol notes that, in addition to these weaknesses, the reliance on written forms would have obviously excluded many individuals who did not have a literate family member to fill out the form for them. Finally, he suggests that because illiterate people are likely to be unemployed and may not have telephones or permanent addresses, the census bureau would have been unlikely to find them (and that if they did, these people might be especially reluctant to talk to a stranger who might be a bill collector, tax auditor, or salesperson).

Effect of immigration

It has been estimated that areas in the United States with higher immigrant populations have the lowest literacy rates in the country.[7][8][9][10]


  1. Field listing: Literacy, CIA World Factbook, retrieved 2009-09-08
  2. 1 2 Adult Literacy in America, Third Edition (PDF), National Center for Educational Statistics, April 2002, retrieved 2011-01-12
  3. A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st century (PDF), National Center for Educational Statistics, 2006, retrieved 2007-12-11
  4. United States, CIA World Factbook, 1993, retrieved 2011-06-23
  5. America's Most Literate Cities, Central Connecticut State University.
  6. Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America. New York: New American Library. pp. 37–39. ISBN 0-452-26203-8.
  8. Ho, Vanessa (2002-02-04). "Dropout rates highest among Mexican immigrants, study says". Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
  9. Helfand, Duke (2000-09-09). "U.S. Literacy Rates Among West's Highest, Study Finds". Los Angeles Times.
  10. "California Literacy Rate Tumbles, Symptom of State's Education Ills?".

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