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The Growth Of Awareness Of Adult Illiteracy In Britain



In every nation of the world there is a varying proportion of adults in the population who are illiterate either “crudely”, that is totally unable to read or write in their own vernacular or “functionally” that is unable to read or write at the level of an average nine year old child in primary education.  In underdeveloped countries such as Niger or the Central African Republic this percentage of adult illiterates can be as high as 95%.  Since in these countries primary education is either non-existent or very rudimentary, such a figure is understandable.  However, when the figures of adult illiterates in the developed industrialised nations of the West are studied a more surprising result emerges.  The figure in nearly all Western nations hovers around 3 – 4%.

In terms of the population of the United Kingdom that means that some 2,000,000 adult citizens are either quite unable to read and write, or can do so at a lower level than that of a nine year old child.

In fact, that 3% is something of an underestimate.  Although in 1964 the UK reported complacently that "Britain has no problem of illiteracy amongst adults”1 in 1945 Sir Cyril Burt had estimated that 2% of the population were crudely illiterate while 15 – 20% were functionally illiterate; in the United States of America 10.8% of military recruits for World War II were functionally illiterate.2

It should be noted that while the British and American statistics relating to illiteracy takes a functional level of an average nine year old child as “literate” the UNESCO Report of 1951 anticipated the level of literacy to be equal to that of a thirteen year old child,  i.e. three years of secondary schooling.  Another factor to be kept in mind is that the British figures exclude immigrants, those in Special Schools or considered “ineducable”.  If these categories were to be included it is at least probable that the percentage of illiterates in the U.K. could reach 25 – 30% of the adult population.  A figure of that magnitude in a so-called advanced nation, 100 years after compulsory primary education was introduced certainly gives no cause for complacency.  It indicates some serious failings in the educational system,.

Of what importance is functional literacy to the average labourer or housewife?  What is the definition of “literacy”.  There have been many definitions of literacy and I quote from a few only:

"Modern society assumes an ability to handle print.”3

"A person is literate who can, with understanding, both read and write a short single statement on his everyday life.”4

"A person is functionally literate when he has command of reading skills that permit him to go about his daily activities successfully on the job, or to move about society normally with comprehension of the usual printed expressions

1 UNESCO Report: Ministry of Education, Literacy and Education for Adults 1964.

2 Kedney, R.J. et al: The Adult Illiterate in the Community, 1975.

3 The Bullock Report: A Language for Life, 1975.

4 UNESCO Report, 1951.

© Amity Reading Clubs and Betty Cooper 1978 to 2002 Page 6 of 51

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