How many illiterate adults are there in England?
Less than one per cent of adults in England would be described as completely illiterate, although this absolute definition is not often used.
More common is the use of the term "functionally literate"’. Around 16 per cent, or 5.2 million adults in England, can be described as "functionally illiterate". They would not pass an English GCSE and have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. They can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems. Many areas of employment would not be open to them with this level of literacy and they may also struggle to support their children with reading and homework, or perform other everyday tasks.
Of these approximately 5.2 million, around 3.5 million are at the upper end of the scale and have strengths and weaknesses in particular areas, rather than being at the same level for all areas of literacy. Most feel more comfortable with reading than with writing. Around 5 per cent, or 1.7 million adults in England, have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old.
The idea of a "reading age" in years can be misleading, particularly when related to adult literacy levels. Reading age does not necessarily correspond to thinking or comprehension age so in talking about the difficulty of text, it is more useful to describe it in terms of readability levels rather than reading age. Readability levels are defined by sentence length and complexity of vocabulary, and can be calculated for any piece of prose using a simple formula. More on readability levels
Research on adult literacy levels was published by the Department for Business, Industry and Skills in December 2011. Find out more
You can also read about international comparisons of adult literacy skills, as part of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. See www.oecd.org/site/piaac/.
For an overview of literacy levels in the UK among adults and children, read our report, Literacy: State of the Nation.