What do adult literacy levels mean?

Adult reading on train

In England, adult literacy is often referred to in terms of ‘levels’ – for example, a 2011 government survey of adult literacy skills found that 14.9% (or 1 in 7) of adults in England have literacy levels at or below Entry Level 3, which is equivalent to the literacy skills expected of a nine to 11-year-old.

More recently, in 2015, the OECD conducted its Survey of Adult Skills, known as PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies). This survey found that 16.4% (or 1 in 6) of adults in England, and 17.9% (or 1 in 5) adults in Northern Ireland, have literacy levels at or below Level 1, which is considered to be 'very poor literacy skills'.

The government and the OECD measure literacy levels in different ways, as outlined below.

The government’s 2011 Skills for Life survey defines literacy across five levels:

  • Entry Level 1 is equivalent to literacy levels at age 5-7. Adults below Entry Level 1 may not be able to write short messages to family or read a road sign.
  • Entry Level 2 is equivalent to literacy levels at age 7-9. Adults with below Entry Level 2 may not be able to describe a child’s symptoms to a doctor or read a label on a medicine bottle.
  • Entry Level 3 is equivalent to literacy levels at age 9-11. Adults with skills below Entry Level 3 may not be able to understand labels on pre-packaged food or understand household bills.
  • Level 1 is equivalent to GCSE grades D-G. Adults with skills below Level 1 may not be able to read bus or train timetables or understand their pay slip.
  • Level 2 is equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C. Adults with skills below Level 2 may not have the skills to spot fake news or bias in the media.

The OECD defines literacy across six levels. People with Level 1 or below literacy skills are considered to have very poor literacy skills, while Level 3 is considered the minimum literacy skills required for coping with everyday life. The levels are defined as follows:

  • Below Level 1: Adults can read brief texts on familiar topics and locate a single piece of specific information. Only basic vocabulary knowledge is required and the adult is not required to understand the structure of sentences or paragraphs.
  • Level 1: Adults can read relatively short digital or print texts to locate a single piece of information that is identical to or synonymous with the information given in the question. Knowledge and skill in recognising basic vocabulary, determining the meaning of sentences, and reading short paragraphs of text is expected.
  • Level 2: Adults can make matches between the text, either digital or printed, and information. Adults can paraphrase or make low-level inferences.
  • Level 3: Adults are required to read and navigate dense, lengthy or complex texts.
  • Level 4: Adults can integrate, interpret or synthesise information from complex or lengthy texts. Adults can identify and understand one or more specific, non-central idea(s) in the text in order to interpret or evaluate subtle evidence-claim or persuasive discourse relationships.
  • Level 5: Adults can search for, and integrate, information across multiple, dense texts; construct syntheses of similar and contrasting ideas or points of view; or evaluate evidence based arguments. Adults understand subtle, rhetorical cues and can make high-level inferences or use specialised background knowledge.

Get further support and information on adult literacy.