Illiteracy in Britain: How Does the UK Compare to the World? 

By: Verbit Editorial
A book with glasses on it on a bed

A world without reading: For over 50 years, UNESCO has celebrated International Literacy Day in an attempt to highlight and overcome the levels of illiteracy that still exist worldwide.  When records began back in 1800, adult illiteracy levels were at a whopping 88%. At the time, access to schooling for most of the globe was almost non-existent. Incredibly, over 200 years later, those levels have all but flipped. By 2015, only 14% of the global population couldn’t understand the written word. However, for a world that now has distance and open-access learning, that level still seems disturbingly high.  Illiteracy in the UK persists today as well. For example, in this developed nation with a well-established, state-funded education system and the two highest-ranked universities in the world, 1 in 5 adults remain functionally illiterate.   

Trying to imagine a world without reading might seem impossible for those of us who take it for granted. However, in the UK at least, there’s been a fall in education funding for the seventh year running. The nation is also facing a continued closure of public libraries. That environment is starting to manifest more illiterate teenagers in the UK than adults. A terrifying world where literacy is a luxury doesn’t seem as far away as it should be.  So, with that in mind, here, today, in 2019, in a world that’s split the atom and stepped foot on the moon, let’s talk about what life is like for the 781 million people who can’t read. 

Girl reading a book near a river

The life and death of illiteracy 

There are very few mammals in existence today that are as pathetically useless upon birth as us humans. Whilst it takes an average twelve months for a human baby to get up off its bum and start walking, some creatures are up and at ‘em within the first hour.  The Blue Wildebeest, for example, takes a mere six minutes to put one foot in front of the other and can outrun a hyena before day’s end! It is because of this and the resulting reliance we have on our parents that illiteracy can affect us from day one. 

Today, the number of mothers dying from childbirth is approximately 303,000 every year. However, estimates indicate that a primary education for all women would reduce that number by as much as 60%. This reduction in maternal mortality is because literate women are far more likely to introduce simple but effective routines into their day-to-day lives that result in better hygiene and quicker reaction times to unusual bleeding or changes in blood pressure.  In fact, eradicating illiteracy among women could save the lives of over 180,000 mothers every year. 

Likewise, illiteracy has just as big an impact on the end of your life as it does the beginning.  Last year, The National Literacy Trust found that a boy born in Stockton-On-Tees, an area with some of the worst illiteracy rates in the country, had a life expectancy over 26 years shorter than a boy born at the same time in Oxford, where illiteracy is rare.  This impact on life expectancy is due in part to decreased levels of health literacy, the ability to understand and take note of information surrounding your health. Additionally, illiteracy can negatively affect employment, leading to lower income levels and a reduction in resources. Over the course of a lifetime, that lack of resources can negatively impact health. 

Living and working with illiteracy 

When it comes to employment, Illiteracy is, unsurprisingly, a significant disadvantage.  In fact, out of those people in the UK who are classed as functionally illiterate, 63% of men and 75% of women have never received a promotion at work.  There is, therefore, a direct correlation between low-income jobs and low-literacy levels nationwide. In England, this correlation reaches levels unseen by any other country in the developed world. 

Although the impact is relatively easy to measure in the job sector, it’s harder to gauge the impact illiteracy can have on social and personal lives. Living in the modern world with poor literacy skills can result in immense levels of embarrassment and shame. In fact, those with below-average reading levels are more likely to suffer from poor mental health than those with above average reading skills. Consequently, this can manifest in low self-esteem, anxiety, and increased levels of isolation. These individuals even face being victimized. For instance, the inability to read makes one more reliant on others, and therefore open to deception and fraud. While most of us take for granted the ability to check bus timetables or read a contract, for those who are illiterate, these tasks become a major roadblock. 

A girl wearing glasses reading in a library

Ways out of the darkness 

According to a recent report by the UN, 3.9 million UK children were living in poverty in 2021. With the knowledge that those born into low-income households are often behind average literacy levels by the time they start primary school, the country could soon be caught in a vicious circle of illiteracy. 

Thankfully, there is hope out there.  Programs such as Quick Reads and Words for Work are actively fighting to combat illiteracy in Britain. Quick Reads, for example, provided nearly 5 million books to libraries. Words for Work is building a link between business and schools to help improve the understanding of the importance of literacy. 

The vast majority of us take reading for granted. We do it hundreds if not thousands of times a day without even realizing how much of a privilege it is to be able to do so. Yet, without the ability to read, our very survival can be at risk.  Each of us can help fight illiteracy. Start by supporting your local library, helping your child with their homework, and, quite simply, never forgetting how lucky you are to be able to read

Ways you can fight illiteracy in the UK: 

Read Easy – volunteer to help adults learn to read. 

The Reading Agency – tackling illiteracy amongst all ages 

English My Way – resources for teaching and learning English 

UK Libraries – find and support your local library 

UK Literacy Association – find your local UKLA representative 

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