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.

The importance of literacy

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.

Literacy statistics

Our research underpins our programmes, campaigns and policy work to improve literacy skills, attitudes and habits across the UK.

  • 1 in 11 disadvantaged children in the UK say that they don’t have a book of their own

    Children who say they have a book of their own are six times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than their peers who don’t own a book (22% vs. 3.6%). Read more.

  • The longer children keep an enjoyment of reading going, the greater the benefits are in the classroom

    10-year-olds who enjoy reading have a reading age 1.3 years higher than their peers who do not enjoy reading, rising to 2.1 years for 12-year-olds and 3.3 years for 14-year-olds. Read more.

  • Children born into communities with the most serious literacy challenges have some of the lowest life expectancies in England

    A boy born in Stockton Town Centre (an area with serious literacy challenges) has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in North Oxford. Read more.

  • Children who enjoy reading and writing are happier with their lives

    Children who enjoy reading are three times more likely to have good mental wellbeing than children who don’t enjoy it. Read more.

  • 3 in 5 children in the UK enjoy reading

    But after six years of increasing reading enjoyment levels, children and young people's reading enjoyment actually decreased last year. Read more.

  • Only half of children in the UK enjoy writing

    Younger children enjoy writing almost twice as much as their older peers (68.5% of 8 to 11-year-olds, 46.5% of 11 to 14-year-olds, 36% of 14 to 16-year-olds). Read more.

See more of our research reports.

Adult literacy rate

16.4% of adults in England, or 7.1 million people, can be described as having 'very poor literacy skills.' 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.

Find out more.
Adult reading on train

More information

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