Adult literacy

Information on adult literacy in the UK and our Books Unlocked programme.

16.4% of adults in England, or 7.1 million people, can be described as having 'very poor literacy skills.' They can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems. This is also known as being functionally illiterate.

Many adults are reluctant to admit to their literacy difficulties and ask for help. One of the most important aspects of supporting adults with low literacy levels is to increase their self-esteem and persuade them of the benefits of improving their reading and writing.

Adult literacy statistics

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 (2012), Scotland (2009), Wales (2010) and Northern Ireland (2012). 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% / 256,000 people) adults in Northern Ireland have very poor literacy skills.

Books Unlocked

We work with the Booker Prize Foundation and National Prison Radio to engage prisoners and increase their enjoyment and frequency of reading through our Books Unlocked programme.

Learn more
Books Unlocked NPR

Further support and information for adult literacy

  • Visit the Gov.uk site for improving your English skills, or call the National Careers Service helpline on 0800 100 900
  • If the adult is employed and has access to a union, their union learning representative will be able to provide confidential advice. Information is on the Union Learn website
  • You could also contact a local adult education college directly, for information on courses, or your local library, which can also provide support such as appropriate reading materials and reading groups.
  • Adults can also get literacy support in their role as parents, through family learning activity provided by colleges, libraries, schools and other organisations. Being able to become more involved in their children’s learning can be a powerful motivator to adults to improve their literacy skills.
  • Read Easy recruits, trains and supports volunteers to give one-to-one tuition to adults who struggle with reading
  • The Learning and Work Institute aims to improve access to learning for adults
  • The Reading Agency provides a number of free resources to help improve adult reading skills
  • Learn Direct provides online courses and a network of learning centres. Call 0800 101 901 for advice and information on their adult literacy courses
  • English My Way is a resource for tutors who support and teach adults with no or low levels of English, providing free teaching resources and tools to manage classes.