Credit: Rubén Torrens/UNESCO

“Literacy For Life” and literacy assessment after 2015

By David Post, Senior Policy Analyst for the EFA Global Monitoring Report.

On 23 October 2014 the United Nation’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee (the “Third Committee”) adopted a new resolution, “Literacy for life: shaping future agendas”.  The Resolution, highlights the importance of functional literacy for the Sustainable Development Goals post-2015 and reflects a need for new ways to monitor literacy.

In programming, the Third Committee encourages “better integration of literacy into sector-wide and multi-sectoral education and development strategies, expanding the provision of quality literacy programmes, enhancing education systems to provide quality basic education through schooling and enriching literate environments to allow people to acquire, use and advance literacy skills.” The Resolution also calls upon “governments to develop reliable measures of literacy and generate data that are comparable across time and disaggregated by age, sex, disability, socioeconomic status, geographical location and other relevant factors.”

The Resolution is based on years of research and experience following the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000, including the monitoring of the EFA goal on adult literacy.

Seeing literacy as a skill and on a continuum – as opposed to a product that can be universalized by “eradicating” illiteracy – represents a big step forward since the Dakar Framework for Action and will have consequences for the way literacy is measured and monitored in the future.

Currently, most countries send information to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) from their national census about the numbers of people in each household who are declared by an interviewee to be “literate” and “illiterate.” This approach has two obvious limitations.  First, definitions of literacy vary between countries and change over time even within a single country (for example, in the year 2000, to be “literate” in China meant recognizing 1,500 characters in the rural area but 2,000 characters in urban areas; this was made consistent in the 2010 census).

Credit: Ripon Barua/UNESCO
Credit: Ripon Barua/UNESCO

Secondly, since 2000, many countries with multi-lingual populations began to conduct direct assessments of adult literacy, and the concept is being broadened also to include numeracy. When adults’ literacy skills are directly assessed in their mother-tongues, lower rates of functional literacy are evident than when estimates are based on household declarations.  For example, in Bangladesh household declarations from the 2011 census suggested that 62% of the population, ages 11 – 45, were “literate.” That same year, a national assessment of functional literacy produced a more nuanced picture of the same age group (see table below).

A direct measure of functional literacy in Bangladesh: lower estimates than from declarations
Level of literacy Skills in numeracy and literacy tested directly Men Women
Non-literate (score 0–24.9) Lack of ability to decode alphabet, recognize words/numbers and count money/objects 36% 41%
Semi-literate (score 25–49.9) Ability to recognize and write some words, to count objects and numbers at a very basic level 7% 9%
Literate at initial level (score 50–74.9) Ability to read and write simple sentences in a familiar context; possess four basic rules of arithmetic; limited use of these abilities and skills in a familiar context in life situations 13% 14%
Literate advanced level (score 75–100) Ability to read and write with fluency in varying contexts; competency of four arithmetic rules and mathematical reasoning; ability to use these skills in everyday life and future learning 44% 36%

Source: Literacy Assessment Survey (LAS) 2011 (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2013), Tables 2.3, 3.2 and 5.5.

Since the launch of the 2006 thematic Global Monitoring Report, (also titled “Literacy for Life”) more countries are participating in cross-national literacy surveys based on direct assessment of literacy proficiencies. These include the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and the World Bank’s Skills Toward Employment and Productivity (STEP) programme. The data from both surveys treats literacy as a continuum with multiple components and has recently been released to researchers and national leaders.

The success of STEP may be because the measure of adult literacy was integrated into a broader measurement program supported by employers. While PIAAC was fielded in high literacy countries, STEP proves that international comparable items can be applied in many languages and in low literacy countries.

UNESCO also offered an assessment of adult literacy in four countries. When data is available from this, the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (LAMP), researchers will have another valuable tool.

Such cross-national programs, together with direct assessments of literacy at the national level, offer excellent examples of how to address the data needs highlighted by the Third Committee’s resolution. Understanding literacy on a continuum can also inform the current debate about the appropriate targets for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goal on education.



  1. Thank you for such an informative write-up. This new resolution will definitely play a big role in boosting the education sector. The new ways to monitor the rate of literacy can actually help promote literacy as a skill. Let’s hope that this helps increase the literacy rate in the long run.

  2. Great blog! Monitoring the rates will provide meaningful data at digging further to the root. As a nurse I have non-empirically realized illiterate populations have a high re-admission rates. Research is needed to determine the health effects of impaired literacy skills among Americans. My organization has begun to develop non-literacy methods for providing patient education and obtaining informed consent.

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