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Literacy means the ability to read and write. Being able to read and write is an important skill in modern societies. Usually, people learn how to read and write at school. People who can read and write are called literate; those who cannot are called illiterate.

According to UNESCO, illiteracy is not being able to write or read a simple sentence in any language. They estimated that, in 1998, about 16% of the world's population were illiterate.

World literacy rates by country

Illiteracy is highest amongst the states of the Arab peninsula, and in Africa, around the Sahara. In those countries about 30% of men, and 40-50% of women are illiterate, by the UN definition. One of the causes of illiteracy is that someone who can manage to live without being able to read and write often does not have any reason to want to learn to read and write. Cultural factors also play a part, such as having a culture in which the oral tradition (communicating by speaking) is more important than writing. A tribe that mostly herds livestock, for example, may have no need to read or write.

There are two different kinds of illiteracy:

  • People with primary illiteracy have never learned how to read or write.
  • People who have learned some reading and writing, but not well enough for their work are called functionally illiterate. Perhaps they cannot write well enough to fill out a form, or to understand instructions in a manual. In most industrial countries, the main problem is functional illiteracy.

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