Literacy Facts

The realm of literacy extends far beyond the ability to read in the classroom. It encompasses a broad range of issues such as being able to read instructions for a prescription drug, use a computer, navigate a website, and manage one’s financial information. Illiteracy has a significant negative impact on the economy; it contributes to increased rates of incarceration, teen pregnancy, high-school dropouts, and unemployment. Featured in this section are some informative statistics about illiteracy and its impact—in Alabama and beyond.

Functional Illiteracy

11 million adults are functionally illiterate; 1 in 4 Alabamians is functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy is the inability to read, write, or use basic math skills and technology in everyday life. It is linked with numerous social problems including crime, increased high school dropout rate, poverty, teen pregnancy and poor emotional health.

Functional illiteracy prevents an individual from reaching his or her full potential as a parent, employee and community member.

Children and Literacy

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 60% of K-12 school children read below the level needed to proficiently process the written materials used in their grade levels.

Learning to read begins long before a child enters school. It begins when parents read to their children, buy their children books and encourage their children to read. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, children who have not developed some basic literacy skills by the time they enter school are 3 to 4 times more likely to drop out in later years. However, it is never too late to improve one’s reading skills. Programs are available for Pre-K children and K-12 adolescents.

Adults and Literacy

There are 774 million adults around the world who are illiterate in their native languages, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

According to ProLiteracy, 42 million adults can’t read at all in the U.S.; 50 million are unable to read at a higher level that is expected of a fourth or fifth grader.

In Alabama, 3.4 million or 15% of Alabama residents are illiterate, according to 2003 statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics. More specifically, in West Alabama, an average 35% of residents are illiterate. Literacy is necessary for an individual to communicate, understand information and function in today’s society. Literacy is essential if we are to reduce poverty, reduce crime and end the cycle of illiteracy. Without literacy skills—the abilities to read, to write, to do math, to solve problems, and to access and use technology—today’s adults will struggle to take part in the world around them and fail to reach their full potential as parents, community members and employees.

Economic Effects of Illiteracy

40% of fourth graders do not read at grade level, and this same number of students will not graduate from high school. The impact of illiteracy on society extends far beyond the inability to read. High rates of illiteracy correlate with increased crime rates, poverty, teen pregnancy, unemployment and an increased high school dropout rate.

Financial Literacy

34% of Americans lack a basic understanding of the concept of financial interest.

According to a 2009 study conducted by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, almost half of Americans report that it is difficult for them to keep up with their monthly expenses and bills. The study also revealed a disconnect between self- reported financial knowledge and math skills and responses to financial literacy and math questions. Of Americans who rated their math skills at the highest level, 48% were still unable to do two calculations involving inflation and interest.

According to FINRA, the cost of poor financial decisions made by a few individuals can affect all Americans “through higher prices for financial products, the diversion of economic resources and greater strains on existing social safety nets.” Therefore, it is in everyone’s best interest to improve the financial strength and knowledge of American consumers. For more information on financial literacy and to see the complete FINRA study, please

Workforce Literacy

Nation’s Business magazine estimates that 15 million adults holding jobs in the U.S. are functionally illiterate.

According to the National Institute for Literacy, 70% of people with the lowest literacy skills have no job or a part-time job. The Department of Education estimates that 60% of the unemployed lack the basic skills necessary to be trained for high-tech jobs.

Workforce education programs provide people with the skills needed to get or retain a job, advance in their careers or increase productivity. As a result, literacy levels influence people’s standard of living. For example, workers who lack a high school diploma earn an average monthly income of $452, compared to $1,829 for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Computer Literacy

In a technology-saturated society, the definition of literacy now requires competence with technological devices. Computer literacy, defined as the knowledge and ability to efficiently use computers and technology, is an important skill for individuals in our society. Technology is used in the day-to-day decision-making process in financial, medical, educational and technical industries. This reliance on technology can make life difficult for those lacking basic technology skills.

The article, “A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age” (2004) reported that more than65% of households own a computer and this number is expected to increase as technology improves and prices decrease. However, a problem arises as those who could use technology to increase their literacy and general skills are often those who do not have access to it.

Correction Literacy

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 60% of adults in federal and state correctional institutions are illiterate and 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems. Only about one-third of prison inmates have completed high school.

Through correctional education, prisoners develop the academic, technical and social skills they need to assimilate into society. Incarcerated people who do not participate in education programs find it almost impossible to find a job when released into society. As a result, they are more likely to commit a crime yet again.

Literacy and Healthcare

According to a study performed by the Journal of the American Medical Association81%of patients age 60 and older at a public hospital could not read or understand basic materials such as prescription labels.

According to Health People 2010, health literacy is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Health-illiterate individuals may be unable to understand appointment slips, instructions for their prescription medications, appointment slips, medical education brochures and doctor’s instructions and consent forms.


The Facts

1 of every 4 Alabama residents is functionally illiterate, meaning they lack the basic reading, writing, and computational skills to function in modern society. That is 25% or over 1 million people in Alabama that need our help.

  • 23% of residents in Tuscaloosa County are functionally illiterate as are over 40% of residents in some surrounding counties.
  • 75% of small business owners in Alabama report that many applicants for job openings do not have basic reading, writing and math skills.
  • 70% of Alabama’s inmates are functionally illiterate. One inmate costs the state $20,000 to house per year, but it only costs$4,800 per year to give someone a high-quality education.
  • More than 30% of children drop out of school in the region. 22.6% of those age 25 years or older, don’t have a high school degree. That number is being fed annually by youth dropping out of high school.
  • 70% of incoming freshmen in the region’s two community colleges need remedial reading and math.
  • The 39.7%  birth rate to mothers between the ages of 10 and 19 is a factor in low literacy for both the child and parent.

Sources: LITE, The Literacy Council of Central Alabama, National Center for Family Literacy, ProLiteracy, U.S. Department of Education

United States

  • In the U.S., 63 million adults — 29 percent of the country’s adult population —over age 16 don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at the eighth grade level.
  • An additional 30 million 14 percent of the country’s adult population — can only read at a fifth grade level or lower.
  • Forty-three percent of adults with the lowest literacy rates in the United States live in poverty.
  • The United States ranks fifth on adult literacy skills when compared to other industrialized nations.
  • Adult low literacy can be connected to almost every socio-economic issue in the United States:
    • More than 65 percent of all state and federal corrections inmates can be classified as low literate.
    • Low health literacy costs between $106 billion and $236 billion each year in the U.S.
    • Seventy-seven million Americans have only a 2-in-3 chance of correctly reading an over-the-counter drug label or understanding their child’s vaccination chart.
    • Low literacy’s effects cost the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.



According to UNESCO, in the world today there are about 1 billion non-literate adults.

  • This 1 billion is approximately 26 percent of the world’s adult population.
  • Women make up two-thirds of all non-literates.
  • 98 percent of all non-literates live in developing countries.
  • In the least developed countries, the overall illiteracy rate is 49 percent.
  • 52 percent of all non-literates live in India and China.
  • Africa as a continent has a literacy rate of less than 60 percent.
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa since 1980, primary school enrollment has declined, going from 58 percent to 50 percent.
  • In all developing countries, the percentage of children aged 6-11 not attending school is 15 percent. In the least developed countries, it is 45 percent.(UNESCO 1998)

In the world today, the number of people speaking lesser-known languages is 1.25 billion, that is 20 percent of the world’s population.

  • The average adult literacy rate among that population is an estimated 31 percent.
  • The average adult literacy rate in their mother tongue among speakers of lesser-known languages is an estimated 12 percent.
  • 26 countries have more than 90 percent of the total national population speaking lesser-known languages. The average literacy rate in these countries is 63 percent.
  • 21 countries have less than 1 percent of the total national population speaking lesser-known languages. The average literacy rate in these countries is 93 percent.
  • Of the world’s non-literate population, an estimated 476 million are speakers of lesser-known languages. In other words, approximately 50 percent of all non-literates are minority language speakers.

There is a correlation between income and illiteracy.

  • Per capita income in countries with a literacy rate less than 55 percent averages about $600
  • Per capita income in countries with a literacy rate between 55 and 84 percent is $2,400
  • Per capita income in countries with a literacy rate between 85 and 95 percent is $3,700
  • Per capita income in countries with a literacy rate above 96 percent is $12,600

Be Inspired

“There are all kinds of things you can do to marry literacy with health.”  -C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General

“If you want to work on the core problem, it’s early school literacy.” -James Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape

“No skill is more crucial to the future of a child, or to a democratic and prosperous society, than literacy.” Los Angeles Times, “A Child Literacy Initiative for the Greater Los Angeles Area”

“Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens.”   “There are all kinds of things you can do to marry literacy with health.” -C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General

“If you want to work on the core problem, it’s early school literacy.”  -James Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape

“No skill is more crucial to the future of a child, or to a democratic and prosperous society, than literacy.”  Los Angeles Times, “A Child Literacy Initiative for the Greater Los Angeles Area”

“Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens.”  -President Clinton on International Literacy Day, September 8th, 1994

“Literacy arouses hopes, not only in society as a whole but also in the individual who is striving for fulfilment, happiness and personal benefit by learning how to read and write. Literacy…means far more than learning how to read and write…The aim is to transmit…knowledge and promote social participation.” -UNESCO Institute for Education, Hamburg, Germany

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”  ―    Frederick Douglass

“There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.”  ―    Frank Serafini

“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.”  ―    Kofi Annan

“Art is literacy of the heart.”  ―    Elliot Eisner

“When writing the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, John Adams wrote: I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading.”  ―    John Adams

“Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing that happens to the human brain and if you don’t believe that, watch an illiterate adult try to do it.”  ―    John Steinbeck

“They are a testament not only to the Afghans’ hunger for literacy, but also to their willingness to pour scarce resources into this effort, even during a time of war.  I have seen children studying in classrooms set up inside animal sheds, windowless basements, garages, and even an abandoned public toilet.  We ourselves have run schools out of refugee tents, shipping containers, and the shells of bombed-out Soviet armored personnel carriers.  The thirst for education over there is limitless.  The Afghans want their children to go to school because literacy represents what neither we not anyone else has so far managed to offer them: hope, progress, and the possibility of controlling their own destiny.”  ―    Greg Mortenson,    Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan

“Literacy isn’t just about reading, writing, and comprehension. It’s about culture, professionalism, and social outlook.”  ―    Taylor Ellwood,    Pop Culture Magick

“With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly.  Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”  ―    Robin Kimmerer

Financial literacy is an issue that should command our attention because many Americans are not adequately organizing finances for their education, healthcare and retirement. Ron Lewis

If we talk about literacy, we have to talk about how to enhance our children’s mastery over the tools needed to live intelligent, creative, and involved lives. Danny Glover

Parents should be encouraged to read to their children, and teachers should be equipped with all available techniques for teaching literacy, so the varying needs and capacities of individual kids can be taken into account. Hugh Mackay

To succeed, you will soon learn, as I did, the importance of a solid foundation in the basics of education – literacy, both verbal and numerical, and communication skills. Alan Greenspan

“Children not only have to learn what their parents learned in school, but also have to learn how to learn. This has to be recognized as a new problem which is only partly solved.” -Margaret Mead (1901-1978) US famous anthropologist, author, environmentalist.

“The more you read, the more you know.
The more you know, the smarter you grow.
The smarter you grow, the stronger your voice,
when speaking your mind or making your choice.”-Seen at Sebastopol library

Children are made readers on the laps of their parents. -Emily Buchwald


Success Stories from the National Center for Family Literacy

What It’s Like to Be Illiterate

Battling the Scourge of Illiteracy by Byron Pitts

Literacy: “A Beautiful Present” by Lisa Primiani

After a 12-hour day of taking measurements and sewing beads on bridal dresses, the last place Filomena Caruso felt like going was Flushing High School. Filomena knew it was crucial that she attended classes to learn the language in her new country, but she was exhausted. She just wanted to go home to the two bedroom apartment she shared with her parents and four younger brothers. If she was ever going to get a better job and out of the cramped apartment in Brooklyn, she knew she needed to learn to read.
That’s why Filomena sat through three hours of classes, four nights a week, in the summer of 1941. “I can still remember the colors of the walls in the classroom and how tired I would be after working all day, but I knew I had to go, I had to learn to read,” Filomena recollects to me in her heavy Italian accent. “What I also will never forget,” she says with a glimmer in her small, almond shaped eyes,  “was the boy sitting behind me.”
Genesio was three years older than Filomena and also a recent Italian immigrant to the United States. He was tall, charismatic, and would pull on Filomena’s curly black-haired ponytail when they sat in class. Genesio and Filomena would pass notes written in Italian, and go dancing after class a few nights a week. Just as fast as their courtship progressed, it abruptly changed.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Filomena’s 18th birthday, Genesio was drafted into the US Army and sent to Adak, Alaska soon thereafter. “All of a sudden he was gone. The only thing we had were letters . We said that since we met learning to speak English, that we would only write to each other in English, not Italian,” Filomena explains. “Our love developed through learning the language.”

Seventy years later, my grandmother still has the letters that my grandfather wrote to her in the three and a half long years that they were apart during World War II. It is incredible to see the letters written in 1942 compared to the ones written in 1945. The sentences are longer, and the descriptions of what happened on a day-to-day basis grew more vivid with each letter. The letters are musty and fragile now, but they are a priceless testament of my grandparents love for each other and their love for learning. My grandfather passed away in the summer of 2007, but I am so lucky to have my grandmother who reminds me to never take education for granted. When I asked my grandmother what it was like before she was able to read, she answered, “I used to love to read on the farm in Italy. I would read about far away places, and it would be like vacation. But when I came here and couldn’t read books anymore, I felt like someone took away a beautiful present.”
It is so easy to take the gift of literacy for granted. My grandparents were fortunate that they were able to attend classes where they learned to read and write shortly after moving to the United States. After serving in the US Army during World War II, my grandfather went on to be a successful business owner, and my grandmother was involved in all sorts of women’s organizations for years.
Ultimately, my grandparents were able to be productive members of society because they were given the gift of literacy. I asked my grandmother if she knew of anyone that immigrated to the United States from Italy who never learned to read. She told me about my great grandmother, who would sign her name with a large “X” and couldn’t leave her house without company because she couldn’t read street signs.
She told another story of a young boy who worked on her family’s farm in Italy, but came to the United States and got involved with organized crime. “He was a good boy, not a bad bone in his body. I hated to see him do bad things. But when he came over, he never went to school like the rest of us, you see? It’s very hard to find a good job if you can’t read.”
If you are reading this article now, you have been given the gift that 1 in 4 people in the state of Alabama have not received. 70% of Alabama’s inmates are functionally illiterate, and 43% of functionally illiterate adults in Alabama live in poverty.

One inmate costs the state $20,000 to house per year, but it only costs $4800 per year to give someone an education, and the opportunity to succeed. Literacy effects all of us in one way or another, whether it’s a personal connection to someone who is illiterate or your tax money that is paying to house an inmate who may have not turned to crime if they only knew how to read. Literacy IS the Edge!

It only takes a few hours a week to impact someone’s life tremendously. You can give the gift of literacy by becoming a LITE volunteer today. If you are interested in volunteering or know someone who may need help, email or visit