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Max Roser (2016) – ‘Literacy’. Published online at Retrieved from: [Online Resource]

# Empirical View

In general in the past, when education rates rose, democratization and industrialization of the society also increased. This is also true for early European societies where democratic and industrial societies first emerged. The rise of science and the abundance of creativity that characterise modernity has roots that reach far back into the past.

# The Spread of Literacy in Europe before 1800

The social historians Buringh and Van Zanden researched this rise in education and reconstructed literacy levels for ten European countries between the middle of the 15th century and 1800. Their reconstruction shows how the rising levels of education in Europe foreshadowed the emergence of modern societies.

# Literacy rates around the world from the 15th century to present – Max Roser1

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In the previous graph we have seen that education levels rose quickly in the Northwest of Europe. Though the European civilizations of antiquity were centered around the Mediterranean Sea, it was northern Europe where the Enlightenment originated. England was very much at the center of the development of modernity. The following graph 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 the reduction of gender inequality in education.

# Literacy in England, 1580-1920 – Gregory Clark (2008)2

Literacy in England, 1580–1920 (Clark - 2008)

# Methods for Reconstructing Early Literacy Rates

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), which is also the source of the previous graph. Dittmar3 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) takes a different approach and bases his estimates of literacy levels for early Europe on the level of urbanization.4


We have seen the huge gender inequalities in literacy rates in pre-modern England. Similarly to what has happened with respect to gender inequality, the modernization of the USA also brought down the inequality between races. It is also interesting to see how comparably well-educated the US population was even in the 19th century; it helps to understand why it was one of the first non-European countries that achieved economic growth and progress.

# Percentage of persons 14 years old and over in the US who were illiterate by race, 1870-1979 – Max Roser5

# Latin America

Illiteracy rates in Latin America have dramatically decreased in the past century; many nations have gained 40-50 percentage points in literacy during this time period. However, there is still a wide disparity between nations, as seen in the following graph.

# Adult illiteracy rates in Latin America, 1900-2000 – Max Roser6

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# The Global Picture and Developing Countries in the 20th Century

It is not easy to get an overview of the level of education on a global level for the past, but we know that for the world regions the literacy level was very low. We can infer this, for example, from the next graph that shows that even at a comparably late point (1980 depicted in the left panel) literacy levels for the population older than 50 were below 30% outside of the developed world and Latin America and the Caribbean.

But we also see that this has been rapidly changing; every younger generation is better educated than older generations. It is particularly promising that the change is happening very quickly in the least educated regions of our world. To see this, note that the slope of the lines in the least educated countries is much steeper in the least educated regions on the bottom of the graph.

In Sub-Saharan Africa in 1995, for example, the literacy rate of the youngest population group was more than three times higher than of 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.

# Literacy by age group for different country groups, 1980 and 1995 – UNESCO7


# Literacy Rates in the Present World

Literacy had a slow start in early pre-modern Europe, but it is now spreading rapidly around the world. All countries outside Africa (with the exception of Afghanistan) now have a population where more than half of the population is able to read. This is depicted in the following world map based on UN data. In many nations there is a huge difference between the literacy rates of the youth, adults and elderly. This points 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.

The change of literacy since 1980 can be studied at the website of the World Bank on a world map, and the data can also be obtained from their database.

# World maps of the literacy rate by age group – Max Roser8

# Literacy rates of the the younger population (15-24 years) versus literacy rates of the older population (65+) – Max Roser9

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# Literacy in the Middle East and Northern Africa

Largely unnoticed education has dramatically improved in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Using the same UNESCO data as above the map shows that in many countries only less than a third of the older generation is literate. In contrast, often more than 90% of the younger generation is literate.


Correlates, Determinants & Consequences

# As global education improved so did global literacy

Looking at the graph below we see that in 1870 more than 3 quarters of the world’s people never had the chance to go to school. Looking at the graph at the bottom we see that this meant was that a similar small share – 19% – of the world were able to read.

The low average figure of education attendance hides huge inequality between world region. While in Europe and the Western Offshoots in North America and Oceania more than half of the population had attended school in 1870, the share was much lower in other parts of the world: In Africa and South-East Asia more than 90% of the population never went to school.

Today the global average has risen to 82% and the inequality between world regions – while still existing – is much lower.

Two centuries ago only a small elite of the world had the ability to read – the best estimate is that 12% if the world’s people were literate. Over the course of the 19th century this number 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 – and from the maps above we can see that it is mostly older people that are illiterate. The young generation is much better educated than ever before.


# Data Quality & Definition

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 attainment10.

# Data Sources

  • Data: Literacy rate (for youths (15-24), adults (15+) and the elderly population (65+))
  • Geographical coverage: Global – by country
  • Time span: Since 1975 – scattered and far from annual data
  • Available at: It is online here, and it is visualized here.
  • The UNDP’s Human Development Report data is here, and UNICEF publishes data on literacy rate here.
  • Older older publications including data on literacy rates are:
    UNESCO (2002) – Estimated Illiteracy Rate and Illiterate Population Aged 15 Years and Older by Country, 1970–2015, Paris.
    UNESCO (1970) – Literacy 1967–1969 Progress Achieved in Literacy Throughout the World. Paris (1970)
    UNESCO (1957) – World illiteracy at mid-century – A Statistical Study, Paris.
    UNESCO (1953) – Progress of literacy in various countries – A Preliminary Statistical Study of Available Census Data since 1900, Paris.

# World Bank – World Development Indicators

# Peter Flora’s data
  • Data: Literacy rate
  • Geographical coverage: Mostly Western Europe
  • Time span: 19th and 20th century
  • Available at: Two important publications are: Peter Flora (1983 & 1987) – State, Economy, and Society in Western Europe 1815–1975: A Data Handbook in two Volumes. Frankfurt, New York: Campus; London: Macmillan Press; Chicago: St. James Press and Peter Flora (1973) – Historical processes of social mobilization: urbanization and literacy, 1850–1965. In S.N. Eisenstadt, S. Rokkan (Eds.), Building States and Nations: Models and Data Resources, Sage, London, pp. 213–258.

# OxLAD – Oxford Latin American Economic History Data Base
  • Data: Illiteracy rate (percent of adult population)
  • Geographical coverage: Latin American countries
  • Time span: Since 1900
  • Available at: Online here

# OECD Skills Outlook
  • Data: Measures of numeracy and literacy competence
  • Geographical coverage: 24 OECD countries
  • Time span: no time series dimension – only 2012
  • Available at: Online here
  • Presents the initial results of the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)