What is literacy?


Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world.

Why is literacy important?

Lacking vital literacy skills holds a person back at every stage of their life. As a child they won't be able to succeed at school, as a young adult they will be locked out of the job market, and as a parent they won't be able to support their own child's learning. This intergenerational cycle makes social mobility and a fairer society more difficult.

People with low literacy skills may not be able to read a book or newspaper, understand road signs or price labels, make sense of a bus or train timetable, fill out a form, read instructions on medicines or use the internet.

Low levels of literacy undermine the UK’s economic competitiveness, costing the taxpayer £2.5 billion every year (KPMG, 2009). A third of businesses are not satisfied with young people’s literacy skills when they enter the workforce and a similar number have organised remedial training for young recruits to improve their basic skills, including literacy and communication.

Adult literacy

Adults with poor literacy skills will be locked out of the job market and, as a parent, they won’t be able to support their child’s learning. Discover more

These are the latest available statistics for adult literacy levels in England (2011), Scotland (2009), Wales (2010) and Northern Ireland (2016). Each Nation has a different definition of basic literacy skills, so county comparisons are not possible.

  • England

    1 in 7 (14.9% / 5.1 million people) adults in England lack basic literacy skills. 

  • Scotland

    1 in 4 (26.7% / 931,000 people) adults in Scotland experience challenges due to their lack of literacy skills. 

  • Wales

    1 in 8 (12% / 216,000 people) adults in Wales lack basic literacy skills. 

  • Northern Ireland

    1 in 5 (17.9% / 550,000 people) adults in Northern Ireland lack basic literacy skills. 


How does England's literacy compare with other countries?

Every three years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) runs its Programme for InternationalStudent Assessment (PISA), a survey comparing different education systems from around the world. PISA tests the reading, science, mathematics and problem solving skills of 15-year-old pupils.

 Over 70 countries took part in the most recent PISA in 2015, including the 35 member countries of the OECD and all four countries of the UK. The UK has climbed from 23rd place in 2012 to 21st place in 2015 for reading scores.

 The PISA 2015 report for England found that:

  • There has been no is significant change in average reading scores in England since 2006
  • The OECD average declined slightly in 2015, thus pupils in England performed above the average for the very first time
  • In only seven countries is the gap between the highest and lowest performing readers greater than in England
  • Boys in England perform less well in reading than girls by an average of nine months of schooling. This trend also exists in most other countries

Another report by the OECD found that England is the only country in the developed world in which adults aged 55-to-65 perform better in literacy and numeracy than those aged 16-to-24. This means that in time, the basic skills of the English labour force could fall further behind those of other countries.

 For more information on literacy around the world, visit the OECD and the National Foundation for Educational Research

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Education in England

Throughout the UK, children aged 5-16 must be in full time education. Literacy and communication skills are embedded across the national curriculum in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and are assessed throughout a child’s time in education.

England follows a National Curriculum that is organised into blocks of years called Key Stages. Children’s literacy skills are tested at:

  • Age 5 (Early Years Foundation Stage)
  • At the end of their first year in primary school (phonics screening check)
  • At the end of Year 2 and Year 6 in primary school (KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum Tests, formerly SATS)
  • At the end of Key Stage 4 in secondary school (GCSEs: General Certificates of Secondary Education)

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How is literacy measured in England?

Early years (ages 0-5) 

In England, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework sets the standards that all providers must meet to ensure that children learn and develop well. It sets out learning requirements in line with the knowledge, skills and understanding that children should have by the time they turn five and start primary school.

There are seven areas of learning and development that must shape educational programmes in early years settings, including areas specific to communication and language (e.g. listening and attention, understanding, speaking) and literacy (e.g. reading, writing).

Teachers assess every child who will be five-years-old on, or before, the start of the new school year by an EYFS profile. The assessments are based on classroom observation and children are not tested. In 2016:  

  • 69.3% of children achieved a good level of development
  • 86% met the minimum standards for listening and attention, 86% for understanding, 85% for speaking, 77% for reading and 73% for writing

In 2017, the Department for Education launched a consultation on the future of primary assessment, including possible changes to the EYFS profile. The EYFS profile will remain in place for the 2017-2018 academic year, while the department reviews the consultation.

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Primary school (ages 5-11)

At the end of a child’s first year at primary school in England (Year 1) they will undertake a phonics screening check. This is a short assessment carried out by teachers to check whether or not each child has learnt to decode words using phonics to an appropriate national standard. In 2016:

At the end of Key Stage 1 (Year 2), pupils undertake National Curriculum Tests (formerly SATs) and teacher assessments in English, maths and science. In 2016: 

  • 74% achieved the new expected standard in reading
  • 65% achieved the new expected standard in writing

At the end of Key Stage 2 (Year 6), pupils undertake National Curriculum Tests (formerly SATs) and teacher assessments in English, maths and science. Interim results for 2017 show:

  • 71% achieved the new expected standard in reading
  • 77% achieved the new expected standard in grammar, punctuation and spelling
  • 76% achieved the new expected standard in writing


Secondary school (ages 11-16)

Key Stage 3 includes the first three years of a child’s secondary education (Years 7-9). Children and young people’s progress is assessed by their teacher throughout Key Stage 3.

During Key Stage 4 (Years 10 and 11), children begin a two-year programme of study for their GCSEs (General Certificates of Secondary Education). Examinations are taken by most pupils at the end of compulsory school education (Year 11).

There are around 50 different GCSE subjects, alongside 14 vocational GCSEs which have recently been introduced to replace Part 1 GNVQs (General National Vocational Qualifications). Each GCSE subject is assessed by formal examinations or by coursework, or by a combination of the two. In 2017:

  • 69.9% achieved C grade (equivalent to new level 4) or above in English language GCSE

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Education in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland


The education system in Wales largely follows the structure in England, with the exception of the curriculum for Key Stage 1:

  • Children aged three to seven follow the Foundation Phase curriculum and are assessed at the beginning and end of the phase
  • Pupils in Years 2-9 also take annual National Reading and Numeracy Tests
  • A new curriculum is being developed in Wales for children aged 3-16 and will be available by September 2018 and implemented throughout Wales by 2021

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Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland follows the Northern Ireland Curriculum, which is based on the National Curriculum for England and Wales, with a few key differences:

  • Pupils take Levels of Progression tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (Year 4), Key Stage 2 (Year 7) and Key Stage 3 (Year 10)
  • Students in Years 4-7 are also given computer-based assessments in literacy, called Northern Ireland Literacy Assessments (NILAs) 
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Scotland follows the Curriculum for Excellence for nursery, primary and secondary schools.

  • Children in Scotland complete seven years of primary school, starting in P1 (the equivalent of reception classes in England) and going up to P7 (the equivalent of Year 7 in England)
  • The first and second years of secondary school (S1 and S2) is a continuation of the Curriculum for Excellence started in primary school, after which there is no set national approach
  • In S3 and S4, students undertake 6-9 subjects called Nationals; at this stage, students tend to be presented at National levels 3-5. Nationals should take one year to complete, with National 3 and 4 having no external exam. Nationals 4 and 5 tend to be completed in S5, with some pupils taking Highers
  • Until the surveys were discontinued in May 2016, pupils in P4, P7, and S2 would complete the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy at the end of the school year
  • From August 2017, new standardised assessments are being introduced as part of the National Improvement Framework. At the end of every school year, teachers of P1, P4, P7 and S3 classes will assess whether children have achieved the relevant Curriculum for Excellence level for their stage in reading, writing, talking and listening. In S4 and S5, pupils will take National 4 or National 5 qualifications (formerly called Standard Grades).