Changes in publishing and copyright relate to the ways that literacy rates rose during this period. Read this data-driven piece about the advances in the country's literacy rates during the American Renaissance.
Literacy is a key skill and a key measure of a population’s education. In this entry we discuss historical trends, as well as recent developments in literacy.
From a historical perspective, literacy levels for the world population have risen drastically in the last couple of centuries. While only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820, today the share has reversed: only 17% of the world population remains illiterate.
Despite large improvements in the expansion of basic education, and the continuous reduction of education inequalities, there are substantial challenges ahead. The poorest countries in the world, where basic education is most likely to be a binding constraint for development, still have very large segments of the population who are illiterate. In Niger, for example, the literacy rate of the youth (15-24 years) is only 36.5%.
While the earliest forms of written communication date back to about 3,500-3,000 BCE, literacy remained for centuries a very restricted technology closely associated with the exercise of power. It was only until the Middle Ages that book production started growing and literacy among the general population slowly started becoming important in the Western World.1 In fact, while the ambition of universal literacy in Europe was a fundamental reform born from the Enlightenment, it took centuries for it to happen. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that rates of literacy approached universality in early-industrialized countries.
The following visualization presents estimates of world literacy for the period 1800-2014. As we can see, literacy rates grew constantly but rather slowly until the beginning of the twentieth century. And the rate of growth really climbed after the middle of the 20th century, when the expansion of basic education became a global priority. You can read more about the expansion of education systems around the world in our entry on Financing Education.
The following visualization shows the spread of literacy in Europe since the 15th century, based on estimates from Buringh and Van Zanden (2009)2. As it can be seen, the rising levels of education in Europe foreshadowed the emergence of modern societies.
Particularly fast improvements in literacy took place across Northwest Europe in the period 1600-1800. As we discuss below, widespread literacy is considered a legacy of the Age of Enlightenment.
We have already pointed out that Northwest Europe made significant improvements in literacy in the period 1600-1800. Here we use historical estimates from England – a country that was very much at the center of the development of modernity – to show how the process towards universal literacy took place. Specifically, the following graph from Clark (2008)4 shows how modernization – characterized by science, technological progress, freedom and tolerance – was enabled by improving the education of ever-larger shares of the population. It also shows how this process of expansion led to a reduction in education gender inequality.
The expansion of literacy in early-industrialized countries helped reduce within-country inequalities. In the preceding visualization we showed that England virtually closed literacy gender gaps by 1900. Here we provide evidence of literacy gaps across races in the US.
The following visualization shows illiteracy rates by race for the period 1870-1979. As we can see, in order to reach near universal levels of literacy, the US had to close the race gap. This was eventually achieved around 1980.
The global expansion of literacy has helped reduce inequalities both within and across countries
In our entry on Financing Education, we show that an important consequence of the global education expansion is a reduction in education inequality across the globe.
Here we want to provide evidence of how inequality in literacy, specifically, has been going down. The following visualization shows literacy by age group for different country groups. The left panel corresponds to 1980, and the right panel to 1995.
We can see that all regions made substantial progress across the board – so the series in 1995 are much more compressed towards the top than in 1980.
We can also see that younger generations are progressively better educated than older generations. And it is particularly promising that this intergenerational change is happening especially quickly in the least educated regions of our world: notice how the slopes of the lines in the least educated countries become progressively steeper. We come back to an analysis of intergenerational literacy gaps below.
In Sub-Saharan Africa in 1995, for example, the literacy rate for the youngest population group was more than three times higher than that for the oldest population group. It may seem obvious, but it is still worth pointing out that in all the statistics shown here we have never seen a reversal of this positive development.
As pointed out above, Europe pioneered the expansion of basic education – but global literacy rates only started really climbing in the second half of the 20th century, when the expansion of basic education became a global priority. Here we present evidence of important recent achievements in Latin America, where literacy has dramatically increased in the past century.
As it can be seen, many nations have gained 40-50 percentage points in literacy during this period.
Despite these improvements, however, there is still a wide disparity between nations. Here you can see that, at the turn of the 21st century, half of the population in poor countries such as Haiti remains illiterate. This motivates the next visualization, where we discuss cross-country heterogeneity in more detail.
The following interactive map shows literacy rates around the world, using recent estimates published in the CIA Factbook. As it can be seen, all countries outside Africa (with the exception of Afghanistan) have literacy rates above 50%.
Despite progress in the long run, however, large inequalities remain, notably between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. In Burkina Faso, Niger and South Sudan – the African countries at the bottom of the rank – literacy rates are still below 30%.
To assess the extent to which progress can be expected in the years to come, it is convenient to break down literacy estimates by age groups. The following map, using data from UNESCO, shows such estimates for most countries in the world.
As it can be seen, in the majority of nations there is a large difference in literacy rates across generations (you can change the map to show literacy rates for different groups by clicking on the corresponding buttons at the top).
These large differences across generations point to a global trend: the high literacy rate among the youth indicates that as time passes, the literacy rate for the overall population will continue to increase.
We highlighted above the fact that most low and middle income countries feature large differences in literacy rates across generations. The visualization below shows specifically how remarkably large these differences are in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Using UNESCO data, these maps show that in many countries in these regions, only less than a third of the older generation is literate – while in contrast, more than 90% of the younger generation is literate.
The following scatter plot emphasizes the point already made. As you can see, younger generations are more likely to be literate than older generations around the world – but the largest gaps correspond mostly to countries in North Africa and the Middle East (these are the countries that are furthest on the top left).
The visualization below shows, in two panels, a side-by-side comparison of long-term trends in school attendance and literacy.
We can see that in 1870 only one in four people in the world attended school, and this meant that only one in five were able to read. And global inequalities in access to education were very large.
Today, in contrast, the global estimates of literacy and school attendance are above 80%, and the inequality between world regions – while still existing – is much lower.
We can see that two centuries ago only a small elite of the world population had the ability to read and write – the best estimate is that 12% of the world population was literate. Over the course of the 19th century global literacy more than doubled. And over the course of the 20th century the world achieved rapid progress in education. More than 4 out of 5 people are now able to read. Young generations are better educated than ever before.
According to a 1958 UNESCO resolution, literacy is defined as the ability to both read and write a short, simple statement about one’s own life. Literacy rates are determined by literacy questions in a census or sample survey of a population, in standardized tests of literacy, or via extrapolation from statistics about school enrollment and educational attainment11.
Statistics of literacy rates for recent decades are published by statistical offices. For earlier periods, historians have to reconstruct data from other sources. The most common method is to calculate the share of those people who could sign official documents (e.g. court documents). Dittmar (2012)12 notes that this only gives a lower bound of the estimate because the number of people who could read was higher than the number who could write. Allen (2003)13 takes a different approach and bases his estimates of literacy levels for early Europe on the level of urbanization.14
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.