1 in 5 Americans have low-literacy skills: These charts explain reading levels in the US

1 in 5 Americans have low-literacy skills: These charts explain reading levels in the US

It’s been 57 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed September 8, 1966, as International Literacy Day. The celebration of Literacy Day helps raise awareness around global literacy needs and achievements.

Here are three charts that explain literacy rates in the US and abroad:

UNESCO data shows that the youth literacy rate was nearly 92% worldwide in 2020 up from 77% in 1975. But illiteracy remains a global problem. At least 763 million adults around the globe lack basic literacy skills, and two-thirds of them are women. The COVID-19 pandemic and other crisis, such as climate change and international conflicts, have worsened these issues, according to UNESCO.

130 million Americans read below sixth-grade level

In the U.S., nearly 130 million American adults read below a sixth-grade level — that number represents more than half the adult US population, according to the Department of Education.

American’s literacy rates vary: Four in five US adults (79%) have English literacy skills sufficient to “Complete tasks that require comparing and contrasting information, paraphrasing, or making low-level inferences,” according to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). This is equivalent to scoring at a level 2 literacy rate or above. At the same time, one in five adults (22%) in the U.S. has difficulty completing these same tasks.

National literacy scores by state

The Education Department found that the national average literacy score is 264. Minnesota and New Hampshire have the highest literacy scores of any state at 279.

On the other hand, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico have the lowest average scores at 252.

Literacy benefits society

Literacy helps level the playing field across systemic societal issues, like race and gender inequality. It also improves access to economic opportunity, according to reporting from Lexia Learning.

A Gallup analysis estimated that increasing literacy proficiency has the potential to generate trillions more in annual income in the U.S. And on the individual level, illiteracy can impact a person’s lifetime earning potential by 30-42%.

Outside of an individual’s potential earnings, literacy supports social, physical and emotional well-being.

Explainer: Why illiteracy is costing America

‘Largest score decline’: In reading for nation’s 9-year-olds, first-ever drop in math


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