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Global Education Monitoring Report

Target 4.6: Literacy and numeracy

By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy

Chapter 13 PDF

CREDIT: Stefanie J. Steindl/UNHCR. Smiles of understanding from Mohammed Abdullah from Iraq (left) and Gholem Reza Ramazani from Afghanistan (right) as they learn media skills in Austria.

Key Messages

  • There were 750 million illiterate adults in 2017. The global adult literacy rate was 86% but only 65% in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The total number of illiterate young people fell from 144 million in 2000 to 102 million in 2017. But the number of illiterates over age 65 is continuing to rise. In 2016, there were 40% more illiterate elderly than illiterate youth.
  • Between 15% and 40% of illiterate people are isolated, living in households in which no member can read. In upper middle and high income countries, including Ecuador and Uruguay, isolated illiterates tend to be older and living in one- or two-person households.
  • Literacy skills support social and intercultural communication and the social, physical and economic well-being of immigrants and refugees.
  • Illiteracy in a first language makes it more difficult to gain literacy in a second: Those with no or little formal education can take up to eight times longer to acquire basic second language reading skills.
  • Programmes and approaches vary by country. Since 2005, Norway has made it compulsory for newly arrived adult migrants and refugees to complete 600 hours of instruction in Norwegian and social studies.
  • Language programmes should include migrant and refugee voices in planning and adapt to a range of populations, including through age- and workplace-specific activities. As part of an evaluation of its first refugee integration strategy, the Scottish government consulted with 700 refugees and asylum-seekers on the design of language and literacy courses.

The world literacy rate reached 86% in 2017, although it remains as low as 65% in sub-Saharan Africa. Progress in youth literacy — and shrinkage of the youth cohort — has been rapid enough in recent years to lead to an absolute decline in the overall number of illiterate youth aged 15 to 24, largely driven by Asia. But the number of illiterate elderly, aged 65 and above, continues to grow; there are now almost 40% more illiterate elderly than illiterate youth (Figure 12).

Figure 12: There are almost 40% more illiterate elderly than illiterate youth

Isolated illiterate individuals, who live in households where no member can read, tend to have worse labour market and quality of life outcomes than proximate illiterates, who live with one or more literate household members.

Isolated illiteracy tends to be higher among rural dwellers. In richer countries, isolated illiterates are relatively older than proximate illiterates, whereas the converse is true in poorer countries. One explanation is that most illiterates in poorer countries live in multigenerational households and hence are more likely to live alongside younger, more educated family members.

Accordingly, literacy interventions should be targeted at old adults living in one- or two-person households in richer countries and at socio-economically marginalized young adults, often living in rural areas, in poorer countries.

Previous year’s Target 4.6