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.

Our research

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

  • 1 in 8 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 three times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than their peers who don’t own a book (12% vs. 4.2%). 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

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.

These are the latest available statistics for adult literacy levels in England (2015), Scotland (2009), Wales (2010) and Northern Ireland (2015). Each Nation has a different definition of basic literacy skills, so country comparisons are not possible.

  • England

    1 in 6 (16.4% / 7.1 million people) adults in England have very poor 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 have very poor literacy skills.

Experian event

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 International Student 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.

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)
EWT @ 2 - baby with book

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 2018:

  • 71.5% of children achieved a good level of development by the age of five
  • 77% of five-year-olds met the minimum standard for reading, 74% for writing, 86% for speaking and 86% for listening
  • Fewer children on free school meals met the minimum standards for reading (62% vs 77%), writing (59% vs 74%), speaking (77% vs 86%) and listening (77% vs 86%) compared to their peers

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. Children are tested again at the end of Year 2. In 2018:

  • 82% of children met the national standard in phonics in Year 1
  • 92% of children met the national standard in phonics in Year 2

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 2018:

  • 75% of children achieved the expected standard in reading
  • 70% of children achieved the 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. In 2019:

  • 73% of children achieved the expected standard in reading
  • 78% of children achieved the expected standard in writing
  • In 2018, fewer children on free school meals achieved the expected standard in reading (60% vs 75%) and writing (63% vs 78%) compared with their peers. Comparative figures for 2019 will be published on 5 September.
Comedy classroom

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 been introduced to replace Part 1 GNVQs (General National Vocational Qualifications).

In 2017, the government introduced a new grading scheme alongside a new GCSE curriculum in England. The new curriculum will be phased in until 2020, at which point all GCSE subjects will be graded from 9 to 1 (with 9 being the highest grade) rather than A*-G. In 2018:

  • 64% of students achieved a good grade in English language GCSE or equivalent (grades A*-C or Level 9-4)
  • 59% of students achieved good grades in English language and mathematics GCSEs
  • In 2017, 64% of students achieved good grades in English language and mathematics GCSEs, compared with just 40% of students eligible for free school meals (Please note: 2018 GCSE results for disadvantaged students are not yet available)

Education in Wales, Northern Ireland & Scotland


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 for settings and schools in Wales. The curriculum will be available by April 2019 for feedback. A final version will be available in January 2020, and will be used throughout Wales by 2022. Find out more.

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 undertook computer-based assessments in literacy until the 2016/17 academic year. These are no longer mandatory

Find out more about assessment in Northern Ireland.


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 class 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).

Find out more about the Curriculum for Excellence and the Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Levels for the 2017/18 academic year.