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Literacy empowers people, enables them to participate fully in society and contributes to improve livelihoods. Literacy is also a driver for sustainable development in that it enables greater participation in the labour market; improved child and family health and nutrition; reduces poverty and expands life opportunities.

Beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills, literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world.

UNESCO has been leading global literacy efforts since 1946, advancing the vision of a literate world for all. It views acquiring and improving literacy skills throughout life as an intrinsic part of the right to education. 

Literacy data

The data show remarkable improvement among youth in terms of reading and writing skills and a steady reduction in gender gaps. 50 years ago, almost one-quarter of youth lacked basic literacy skills compared to less than 10% in 2016. However, 750 million adults – two-thirds of whom are women – remain illiterate around the world. 102 million of the illiterate population were between 15 and 24 years old. The global adult literacy rate was 86% in 2016, while the youth literacy rate was 91%. According to UIS data, the majority of countries missed the Education for All (EFA) goal of reducing adult illiteracy rates by 50% between 2000 and 2015. At the global level, the adult and youth literacy rates are estimated to have grown by only 4% each over this period.

Current literacy data are generally collected through population censuses or household surveys, yet clearly literacy is a far more complex issue that requires more information. These numbers produced by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) are a reminder of the work ahead to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), especially Target 4.6 to ensure that all youth and most adults achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030.

To advance literacy as an integral part of lifelong lifelong learning and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UNESCO takes the following approaches to promote literacy worldwide, with an emphasis on youth and adults.

  • Building strong foundations through early childhood care and education
  • Providing quality basic education for all children
  • Scaling-up functional literacy levels for youth and adults who lack basic literacy skills
  • Developing literate environments

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