Not Everyone Can Read

I’ve been doing some research for a term paper I’m working on and amongst the slew of information that I was filtering through as I was narrowing down the resources I needed, I came across some shocking facts. According to UNESCO:

  • In 2000, one in five adults aged 15+ was illiterate.
  • There were about 774 million adults who lack minimum literacy skills. If the current trend continues, in 2015 there will be some 800 million illiterate adults.
  • Women account for two out of three illiterate adults.
  • There are more than twice as many illiterate adults in the United States as in Iraq.
  • There are 37% more adult illiterates in the United States than in Mexico.
  • There are more illiterate adults in the United States than in either war torn Afghanistan or famine/war torn Sudan.

The National Adult Literacy Survey found a total of 21% to 23% or 40 to 44 million of the 191 million American adults (defined as age 16 or older) at Level 1 (cannot sign their name, locate the expiration date information on a driver’s license, or total a bank deposit entry), the lowest literacy level.

The literacy foundation ABC Canada estimates that 48% of the population in Canada has only a Level 2 (they can read simple material but they struggle at learning new skills for jobs). That means that only 52% of Canadians have higher levels of literacy.

Wow! I knew that the levels of illiteracy were high but I never realized the extent of the problem. So many of us take reading and writing for granted. We spend countless hours surfing online or posting on blogs (my hand is up… I’m guilty as charged!). Literacy is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and violence. It’s not easy being illiterate; I’ve experienced it firsthand when I moved to Japan and couldn’t read nor write. I was completely dependent on those around me including the neighbour’s son who was in grade one.

Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations best sums it up:

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right…. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”

We don’t need to travel half way around the world to teach a person to read. All we need to do is open our front doors and step outside. There are so many people right in our neighbourhoods who can use our help to improve their literacy levels. We have been given a precious gift, that of literacy and it would be a shame if we kept it to ourselves.


“Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.” (Proverbs 9:9)

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