Literacy (reading skills)

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International year of literacy,
postage stamp of the GDR 1990

As literacy is the process of teaching the reading ability and possibly also the writing ability, regardless of whether the learned writing an alphabetical is. The level of reading , writing or writing skills of a population can be given as a percentage for individual population groups and, in some cases, also for historical epochs. Literacy is considered a basic education . The term literacy centers on the individual member of a group . The lack of literacy anchored in a culture is called illiteracy .

Statistics show a dramatic increase in literacy worldwide.

Literacy in Europe

In the Roman Empire, including the provinces, large parts of the population were literate. There was a tripartite state school system that also included simple farmers and slaves in the countryside, as well as a widespread library and publishing system. With the fall of the Roman Empire, in addition to schools and literacy, all of ancient literature was almost completely lost. A level of production and appropriation of writing comparable to that of antiquity was not reached again until the end of the 18th century.

In the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the early modern period , the proportion of literate people was low and concentrated in the cities as well as in the courts and in the clergy. Very few new titles were ever written in the 7th to 13th centuries . The first major impetus for sustainable literacy in Europe was provided by the Reformation and the accompanying media revolution in Gutenberg's book printing , which provided the basis for the mass and economic distribution of primarily religious, but then also secular writings. The ideas of the Enlightenment , which extended over three centuries, unfolded its widespread effect right from the start, primarily through the pamphlets , which aimed to involve the population in the various political-theological discourses. The French Revolution in the last decade of the 18th century provided a further impetus, which in turn accelerated through the gradual onset of industrialization and urbanization in the course of the 19th century. "The time around 1860 marked a turning point".

“By 1920 the male population of the leading European countries and some of the female population were literate. […] Only Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany had a literacy rate of 100 percent around 1910. For France it was 87 percent, for Belgium [...] 85 percent. "" The values ​​for the European south were significantly lower: 62 percent for Italy, 50 percent for Spain, only 25 percent for Portugal. "

“Elites reacted contradictingly to mass literacy: On the one hand, the enlightenment of the“ common people ”[...] appeared as civilization from above, the implementation of modernity and the promotion of national integration. On the other hand, there was still mistrust, which admittedly diminished everywhere over time, towards the cultural emancipation of the masses, which at the same time - workers' education associations quickly show this - was connected with demands for social and political betterment. This distrust of the owners of power and education was not unjustified. Literacy, i.e. the democratization of access to written communication content, usually leads to a shift in prestige and power hierarchies and opens up new possibilities of attacking the existing order. "

Literacy levels

Literacy rate worldwide by country (source: UNHD)

The literacy level or literacy rate is a statistical parameter that indicates the proportion of a population group who can read and write. The opposite is the “illiteracy rate”. It is an indicator of the educational level of a population group. The literacy level provides information about the efforts of a government to raise the educational level of the population to a certain level and is often incorporated into key figure systems to describe a country's level of development, e.g. B. in the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations . Within a society, the literacy rate can vary widely between different population groups. Possible causes for this are e.g. B .:

Degree of literacy in Germany

If the level of literacy in Germany (measured by the number of “totally” or “primary” illiterate people), as in most industrialized countries, approaches 100%, one assumes that there are four to ten million “functional” illiterates among adults gives. According to an OECD study (1994–1998), the number of functionally illiterate people in two out of three industrialized countries is higher than 15%. According to the latest LEO study by the University of Hamburg, there are around 6.2 million adults (12.1% of the population) in Germany with a so-called low literacy.

Literacy level in the USA

The literacy rate among men in the New England states was 95 percent as early as 1860; unique in the world, women had already achieved similar values ​​there. The national average was lower at the time as the black and Native American populations were less literate. In 1890 the literacy rate among African Americans nationwide was 39 percent, in 1910 89 percent, but then dropped to 82 percent by 1930.

In the USA, a large National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) was carried out in 1992 . According to the Institute of Literacy, between 21 and 23 percent of the adult population, i. H. 44 million people only the lowest level (level 1), i.e. that is, they cannot read enough to fill out a form, read the descriptions on food, or read a simple story to a child.

Definition of the OECD

The numbers for the functional literacy of a society are relative data that must always be seen in relation to the social standards of the respective society. In contrast, the OECD , for example, measures the level of literacy with a globally uniform definition. The numbers refer to people over 15 years of age. A literate person is defined here as follows:

"A person is said to be literate if they can both read and write a short, simple statement about their everyday life with understanding."
Literate population; estimated
(source: OECD )
  1970 2000
 worldwide   63%   79% 
 Developed countries and countries in transition   95%   99% 
 Least Developed Countries   47%   73% 
 Developing countries without access to the sea   27%   51% 

These data are made available to the OECD by the respective ministries. It is mostly about self-reports that can be embellished. Since there is a so-called hidden illiteracy in all countries of the world, the actual literacy can fall short of the figures given. The discontinuous assessment of literacy (either illiterate or alphabet) is also not very realistic. Still, the data show that literacy increased between 1970 and 2000 in both developed and developing countries.

The literacy level is one of the input parameters in determining the United Nations Human Development Index .

Drastically increased literacy worldwide

Estimates of the proportion of the population over the age of 14 who can read and write for the period 1800–2014

From a historical point of view, the literacy rate of the world population has risen dramatically in the last few centuries. While only 12% of the world's people could read and write in 1820, the proportion has now reversed: Only 17% of the world's population are still illiterate. For the past 65 years, the global literacy rate has increased by 4% every 5 years - from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015.

Despite significant improvements in the expansion of basic education and the continuous reduction in educational inequalities, there are still significant challenges. In the poorest countries in the world, where a lack of basic education is an obstacle to development, very large parts of the population are still illiterate. In Niger, for example, the literacy rate among young people (15–24 years old) is only 36.5%.

Long-term development is similar to other areas of social progress . For example, there have also been major improvements in life expectancy , child mortality , security and fewer wars since the Enlightenment .

Examples of the state of literacy in selected countries

In the Human Development Report 2007/2008 , the United Nations Development Program published the following data:

Advanced countries :

  • Iceland> 99%, 1st place in the HDI list
  • Switzerland> 99%, 7th place in the HDI list
  • Austria> 99%, 15th place in the HDI list
  • Germany> 99%, 22nd place in the HDI list

Middle development countries :

  • Romania 97.3%, ranked 60th in the HDI list
  • China 90.1% ranked 81 in the HDI list
  • Bangladesh 47.4%, ranked 140 in the HDI list

Less developed countries :

  • Rwanda 43.4%, 161st place in the HDI list
  • Niger 28.7%, ranked 174th in the HDI list

Note: The human development index (HDI) includes other factors so that the rank shown above does not match the rank according to the literacy level.

Literacy and development

The level of literacy is one of the most important development indicators . The OECD calculates literacy separately for 15–24 year-olds, as this is where the results of a country's educational efforts are most effective, and literacy among the young (which in developing countries usually make up a large proportion of the total population) is cheaper. The OECD has set itself the goal of increasing the literacy rate of 15–24 year olds to 99% in all countries by 2015. The United Nations declared 2003-2013 the UN Decade of Literacy .

The literacy rate in countries with low and middle per capita incomes has risen from a third to over half since 1960. In 2003, 862 million people were illiterate worldwide. A lack of education is considered to be one of the greatest obstacles to social development. Poor and populous countries such as B. Bangladesh , Brazil , India , Indonesia , Egypt , Mexico , Nigeria and Pakistan . Literacy is a necessary condition for development, but not a sufficient one. If there is no economy that takes advantage of increased literacy, there will be emigration, such as B. in the Philippines . Most of the illiterate people live in Asia, around 833 million. This is followed by Africa with around 156 million and South America with 25 million. In general, illiteracy rates are higher in rural than urban populations and higher in women than in men.


The ability to read is an essential prerequisite for imparting a standardized general education , which - viewed superficially - should lead to a continuous reduction in educational inequalities. At the same time, however, the norms and values ​​of market-oriented cultures are conveyed. This promotes acculturation and ultimately the assimilation of people in developing countries into global society in a highly efficient manner : traditional knowledge , which enables a concrete, holistic orientation in the context of local contexts and is a pillar of every culture, is achieved through a unified, universal education which is artificial and remote from life for the locals because its primary goal is the integration of people into consumer society . In this context, Ivan Illich spoke of an unconscious (educational) ritual with which the West was constantly creating new "progressive consumers" and maintaining the " myth of endless consumption". According to Richard Münch , from a sociological point of view, standardized education promotes a reduction in cultural diversity , which in the long term could prevent the evolution of alternative knowledge. Such alternative worldviews are the basis for completely new, innovative solutions to big problems.

Another danger of literacy lies in the random use of the new media , which result in an enormous, worldwide acceleration of communication . On the one hand, this poses a further threat to cultural diversity and, on the other, according to some scholars, it could lead to an unchecked spread of destabilizing ideologies of all kinds.

Examples of literacy campaigns


There have been repeated attempts by individual countries to increase the level of literacy in the short term. The literacy campaign in Nicaragua at the beginning of the 1980s can be seen as unprecedented in the history of education . After the fall of the Somoza dictatorship, the Sandinista government made literacy one of its main missions. In the so-called “crusade against ignorance” about 100,000 volunteers went to the remote villages of the rural areas and taught, sometimes in three shifts a day. In just two years the illiteracy rate was reduced from 65% to 12%. After the Sandinista government was voted out of office in 1990, efforts in education were scaled back. Currently, one third of Nicaragua's school-age children - around 800,000 - no longer go to school. According to the relevant Human Development Reports , the illiteracy rate was 19.0% in 1990; in 2005 it was 23.3%.


In Mexico, a call to alleviate illiteracy was published in 1944 as a decree by President Manuel Ávila Camacho . Under the heading “¡Oyed!” ( “Listen up!” ), All literacy experts were asked in the press to teach at least one other person to read and write. In the memories of his mother Anna Seghers , who was in exile in Mexico at that time, Peter Radvanyi reports that many who were able to read this appeal actually looked around among neighbors and acquaintances to give lessons.


Paulo Freire developed a literacy program in Brazil in the 1960s , which is not only a technique for the rapid and targeted acquisition of reading and writing, but also a method of raising awareness. Since illiterate people were not eligible to vote in Brazil at the time, literacy was a campaign of high political relevance. He himself saw his program as a step towards the democratization of Brazil.

See also


  • Robert A. Houston: Literacy. In: European History Online . Published by the Institute for European History (Mainz) , 2011, accessed on: February 2, 2012.
  • K. Rothe, C. Ramsteck: Education safety net: Eliminating deficits in reading, writing and arithmetic makes you fit for the job market - a model project. In: PERSONNEL. Journal for Human Resource Management. Issue 07-08 / 2010. Verlagsgruppe Handelsblatt 2010, pp. 60–61.
  • Grotlüschen, Anke; Buddeberg, Klaus; Dutz, Gregor; Heilmann, Lisanne; Stammer, Christopher (2019): LEO 2018 - Life with Low Literacy. Press brochure, Hamburg.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Compare also spoken language vs. Written language .
  2. Rolf Bergmeier: Shadows over Europe: The fall of ancient culture. Alibri Verlag, 2012, ISBN 3-86569-075-0 .
  3. Olwen Hufton : Women's life. A European History 1500–1800. Frankfurt 1998, p. 570.
  4. a b c d e f Jürgen Osterhammel : The transformation of the world - a history of the 19th century . Verlag CH Beck , 2009, ISBN 978-3-406-58283-7 , p. 1118–1123 ( excerpt online from Google ).
  5. ^ UNDP: 2007/2008 Human Development Report ( Memento from January 23, 2009 in the Internet Archive )
  6. LEO 2018 - Life with Low Literacy, under the direction of Anke Grotlüschen
  7. National Institute of Literacy ( Memento of October 7, 2007 in the Internet Archive )
  8. ^ A b Literacy - Our World in Data , Historical Development of Reading Skills. The data are available under the Creative Commons BY license. , accessed on May 12, 2019
  9. a b UNDP: Human Development Report 2007/2008 - Human Development Indicators. (PDF; 1.5 MB on
  10. Clara Steinkellner: Human education in a globalized world. Perspectives of a civil society self-administration of the educational areas in the field of tension between market and state. Diploma thesis, University of Vienna, 2011. pdf version , pp. 60–71; to Richard Münch: 60, 63, 69, 71; to Ivan Illich: 35, 60, 71, 114.
  11. ^ Bernd Lindemann: Language, writing, culture. Lecture in the Forum Philosophicum, University of Vechta, May 21, 2015, entitled "Language and writing as a motor of culture", pdf version ( Memento of the original from June 1, 2019 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. , P. 8., accessed May 30, 2019. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  12. ^ UNDP: Human Development Report 1993 - Human Development Indicators. (PDF; 7.6 MB on
  13. Peter Radvanyi: Beyond the Stream. Memories of my mother Anna Seghers. Translated from the French by Manfred Flügge . Structure, Berlin 2006, ISBN 3-7466-2283-2 , p. 104.