U.S. literacy rate: Can you read me now?

Just 2% of global adults read at top level

Read it and weep: After decades of reporting five levels of literacy, the largest adult literacy study in the world has dropped the top level.

U.S. literacy rate
Researchers in the world’s largest adult literacy study have dropped the top level of literacy. Why? Because too few people in the world can read at the 11th grade level to count. Image by inarik

The reason: Just 2% of adults worldwide — barely enough to count — performed at Level 5. So researchers combined it with Level 4 in their most recent report.

Welcome to the world of literacy today, according to the latest Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC.

PIAAC is an enormous, every-10-year study of adult literacy, developed and organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education. The study seeks to determine how well adults are prepared to function in today’s society.

Here’s what they learned in the latest study.

Most read at basic or below-basic literacy levels.

Some 52% of all Americans (global literacy rate: 49%) have basic or below-basic reading skills.

2013 PIAAC

Most of them can sign forms, compare ticket prices for two events and look up shows in a TV guide. Most cannot find places on a map, calculate the cost of office supplies from a catalog and compare viewpoints in two editorials.

How well are we doing reaching these folks with our blog posts, intranet stories or e-zines?

4% are nonliterate.

Some 4% of Americans (global literacy rate: 3%) have Below Level 1 literacy. That means they are nonliterate. They can’t read well enough to perform activities of daily living in a modern society — let alone to take a literacy test.

2013 PIAAC

Most of them can locate a single piece of information in familiar copy. Most cannot identify which candidate earned the fewest votes from a simple table identifying three candidates and the number of votes they received.

14% have below-basic literacy levels.

14% of Americans (global literacy rate: 12%) have level 1 literacy. That means they can read and write at the below-basic, or first- to third-grade level.

2013 PIAAC

Most of them can identify which candidate earned the fewest votes from a simple table identifying three candidates and the number of votes they received.

Most cannot count the number of countries in which the generic drug market accounts for 10% or more of drug sales from two paragraphs and a chart of generic drug use in 15 countries.

34% have basic literacy levels.

About one-third of Americans (global literacy rate: 34%) have Level 2 literacy. That means they can read and write at a basic, or fourth- to fifth-grade level.

2013 PIAAC

Most can count the number of countries in which the generic drug market accounts for 10% or more of drug sales from two paragraphs and a chart of generic drug use in 15 countries.

Most cannot count the number of countries in which the generic drug market accounts for 10% or more of drug sales from two paragraphs and a chart of generic drug use in 15 countries.

Ladies and gentlemen, please note that at this point, we have reached more than half of your audience.

Are you smart enough to write for a fourth-grader?

36% have intermediate literacy levels.

More than one-third of Americans (global literacy rate: 39%) have Level 3 literacy. That means they can read and write at an intermediate, or sixth- to eighth-grade level.

2013 PIAAC

Most can count the number of countries in which the generic drug market accounts for 10% or more of drug sales from two paragraphs and a chart of generic drug use in 15 countries.

But most can not identify the link leading to the organization’s phone number from a website with several links, including “contact us” and “FAQ.”

12% have proficient literacy levels.

Now we reach the cognitively elite: 12% of Americans (global literacy rate: 12%) have what is now called Level 4/5 literacy.

2013 PIAAC

At Level 4, that means they can read and write at a proficient, or ninth- to 10th-grade level. Yup, just 12% of Americans can read at what we consider the high school literacy level.

Most can identify the link leading to the organization’s phone number from a website with several links, including “contact us” and “FAQ.”

But most cannot review search results from a library website to identify a book suggesting that the claims made both for and against genetically modified foods are unreliable.

Note that if you write for these proficient readers, you’ll miss 88% of adults in the United States.

2% have college literacy levels.

This year, for the first time ever, PIAAC combined the fourth and fifth literacy levels. That’s because there were no longer enough people at the highest level, or 11th-grade and up, to count.

2013 PIAAC

“Across all countries, only 2% of adults performed at Level 5 on many of the variables in the literacy and numeracy scales,” researchers report.

This is the only group that can identify from search results a book suggesting that the claims made both for and against generically modified foods are unreliable.

Write for these folks, and you’ll miss 98% of your readers!

U.S. literary average: below-basic

Put it all together, and what do you get? Our average literacy score of 270 (global literacy rate: 273) out of 500 puts U.S. adults at Level 2, or below-basic, literacy.

We’re No. 13!
We should try harder.

Go up in the world
Go up in the world Only seven countries, with Italy at bottom, scored worse than the United States in literacy.

That means that the United States has:

  • Lower overall literacy scores than the international average
  • A higher percentage of low performers than the international average
  • A larger literacy gap between lower and higher socioeconomic groups than internationally

Plus, our overall literacy score has taken a dive since 1993.

The only good news in this bleak report: The oldest U.S. adults in the study outperformed the international average in literacy.

Reality check: Reach all your readers.

It’s easy to let depressing data like this turn you into an ostrich. Our approvers already believe that our audience members can read at the college level. Resist the urge to dig in with them!

“This is too easy to read.” — Nobody, ever
— Nielsen Norman Group, after observing more than 4,000 readers in 18 countries and 5 continents

It’s easy to blame the educational system or adult learning. (You might also wonder about the literacy skills of other age groups or the literacy rate among youths age 15 and under.)

But it doesn’t really matter the reasons behind these numbers. This research extrapolates to millions of adults. This is reality. We need to deal with it.

The real question isn’t, why is literacy so low? The real question is, how do we reach all of our readers in this environment?

Make messages easier to read.

About the study

From 2011 to 2012, the PIAAC set about finding how well people in developed nations performed on three levels of literacy:

  1. Reading skills — the ability to read, including vocabulary, sentence comprehension and basic passage comprehension.
  2. Numeracy — “the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.”
  3. Problem solving in technology-rich environments — competency in “digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.”

To do so, they studied how well 150,000 people ages 16 to 65 in 23 countries could read and write:

  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Slovak Republic
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

Get more data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

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U.S. literacy rate: Can you read me now?