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What is literacy?

Child girl outside happy nature community - National Literacy Trust

The word literacy is defined as 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

However, understanding the significance of literacy goes far beyond its definition.

Literacy is essential. Without literacy, it’s hard to live the life you want. From your earliest years, literacy skills help you develop and communicate. But when you have a tough start in life, it’s easy to fall behind.

At school, having the literacy skills to read, write, speak and listen are vital for success. If you find these things hard, then you struggle to learn. It affects your confidence and self-esteem.

As an adult, without these same literacy skills, you can’t get the jobs you want, and navigating every day life can be difficult – from using the internet, to filling out forms or making sense of instructions on medicines or road signs. If you have children, it’s hard to support their learning, and so the cycle continues.

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.

  • 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 our research report from 2019.

  • 1 in 15 children and young people aged 8 to 18 do not have a book of their own at home.

    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. Read our Book ownership in 2022 report.

  • 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.

  • 1 in 2 children in the UK enjoy reading

    Only 1 in 2 children and young people said they enjoy reading in early 2022, which is as low as the number has ever been since we first asked the question in 2005. Read more.

  • 1 in 3 children in the UK enjoy writing

    In 2023, 1 in 3 children and young people aged 8 to 18 said that they enjoy writing in their free time. Our 2023 report into children and young peoples' writing in 2023 showed that levels of writing enjoyment have reduced by 12.2 percentage points over the past 13 years. Read our full report.

  • Audiobooks can support wider literacy engagement

    1 in 5 children and young people said that listening to an audiobook or podcast has got them interested in reading books. Read more.

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 literacy - woman reads a book in the park

But that's not the end of the story...

We believe that together, we can break the cycle. We believe that literacy is for everyone so we continue to work in schools and with communities to bring real change through our inspiring and evidence-based programmes, resources and activities.

Read our story
Primary school children reading

More information about literacy