Illiteracy in Britain 2022: How does the UK Compare to the World?

How to be a better listener (1)

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 amongst the world’s population.  When records began back in 1800, adult illiteracy levels were at a whopping 88%, with accessibility to schooling for the vast majority of the globe almost non-existent. Incredibly, over 200 years later, those levels have all but flipped, and, in 2015, only 14% struggled to understand the written word.

However, for a world that now has distance and open-access learning, that level still seems disturbingly high.  Even in the UK, a developed nation with a well-established, state-funded education system and the two highest-ranked universities in the world, 1 in 5 adults are still functionally illiterate.  

Trying to imagine a world without reading might seem impossible for those of us who take it for granted, but, in the UK at least, with a fall in education funding for the seventh year running, the continued closure of public libraries, and the news that there are currently more illiterate teenagers in Britain than there are illiterate adults, this terrifying world 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 still can’t read.

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 will be outrunning hyenas before day’s end! It is because of this and the resulting reliance we have on our parents that means illiteracy can have a major impact on us from day one.

Today, the number of mothers dying from childbirth is approximately 303,000 every year, but it’s estimated that instigating primary education for all women would reduce that number by as much as 60%.  This is because literate women are far more likely to introduce simple but effective routines into their day-to-day lives which result in better hygiene and quicker reaction times to unusual bleeding or changes in blood pressure.  In fact, eradicating illiteracy amongst 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, and also the impact illiteracy can have on employment.

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.  This has resulted in a direct correlation between low-income jobs and low-literacy levels nationwide, and, in England, it is at a level unseen by any other country in the developed world.

Of course, whilst the impact is relatively easy to measure in the job sector, what’s harder to gauge is the impact illiteracy can have on a social and personal level.  Living in the modern world with poor literacy skills can result in immense levels of embarrassment and shame. In fact, those with below-average levels are 30% more likely to suffer from poor mental health than those with above average.  Consequently, as a person proceeds through their life this can manifest in low self-esteem, anxiety, and increased levels of isolation. Even fear can become an issue, as an inability to read makes one more reliant on others, and therefore open to deception and fraud, whilst things most of us take for granted, like checking bus timetables or signing contracts, become a major roadblock.

Ways out of the darkness

According to a recent report by the UN, 40% of UK children could be living in poverty by 2021, so with the knowledge that those born into low-income households are often already 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.  Programmes such as Quick Reads and Words for Work are actively fighting to combat illiteracy in Britain, the former through providing nearly 5 million books to libraries, and the latter by building a link between business and schools to help improve understanding on 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 realising how much of a privilege it is to be able to do so, and yet without it our very survival can be at risk.  So, support your local library, help your child with their homework, and, quite simply, never forget how lucky you are to be able to read.

Ways you can help 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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