Despite the best efforts of LeVar Burton and the rest of our friends at Reading Rainbow, a large number of Americans are unable to read at more then a minimum level of proficiency. About 4.7 million adults (2%), according to a 1992 survey, are completely illiterate and 49 million (21%) are classified in the lowest literacy level. While such a problem may not seem to affect us literates, some say illiteracy does have a vast impact on poverty and crime. On this page, sorry to say, we don't offer any solutions, but we give a glimpse at the extent of the problem.

Adult Literacy

Percent of adults who are non-literate:

  • 3%, or 7 million (could not answer basice test questions) NCES

Percent of adults categorized in the lowest literacy level*:

  • 14%, or 30 million NCES

*Those in the lowest literacy level could not perform basic tasks such as locating a specific piece of information in an article in an NCES survey.

Student Literacy

Percent of public school 4 th graders testing proficient* in reading NCES (2005):

  • 31%

States with a majority of students meeting National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standards:

  • 0

*The NAEP defines proficient as “competency over challenging subject matter.”

Economic and racial disparity

Number of words the average child is exposed to by age 4, by economic status AFT

  • Professional class: 45 million
  • Working class: 26 million
  • Welfare class (children whose parents receive welfare): 13 million

So what's the big deal?

Reading and poverty

  • Percent of adults in the lowest literacy level living in poverty: 40% ECS (note on link: click on "Issues" and drop down to reading/literacy, then click on quick facts)
  • Percent of adults in the highest literacy level living in poverty: 5% ECS

Reading and crime

  • Percent of prisoners who perform at the lowest literacy level: almost 70% ECS

Get ‘em young

Percent of students behind in reading skills in 1st grade who were poor readers in 4th grade:

Percent of 3rd grade poor readers who remained poor readers in 9th grade:

It's all relative

According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), a 2001 study comparing 4th grade literacy in countries in the Americas, Asia, Europe, Oceana, and the Middle East (Morocco was the only participating African nation):

US 4th graders performed significantly better than the international average

Number of participating nations whose 4th graders...

  • outperformed US 4th graders: 3 (England, the Netherlands, and Sweden)
  • scored virtually the same as US 4th graders: 8
  • were outperformed by US 4th graders: 23

The PIRLS revealed little or no change in US scores over the past decade


Fact page created by Adam Gleicher. Summer 2005.

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