8 Jun

Map of the Week: US Literacy Rates


by Sara Ryan

Defined as the ability to read and write, literacy is often considered as the key to freedom. Pre 1950s literacy was measured solely as alphabetical (i.e. word and letter recognition). Post 1950s, literacy transitioned to a much wider concept, incorporating functional literacy (the ability to read and write for everyday life purposes). Today more than 86 percent of the world’s population know how to read and write. 

This interactive map by Wisevoter explores how US literacy rates vary from state to state. States with the highest literacy rates are mostly located in the northern portion of the US while lower literacy rates are found in the more southern states. As US literacy rates are measured using mostly English language literacy, many international communities that do not have proficient levels of English are often classed as illiterate. This discrepancy has led to states with larger international communities ranking lower in literacy regardless of their financial and developmental status (e.g. California). 

Both within the US and globally, cultural customs, politics, and large scale disruptions to education affect literacy rates. Within certain cultural groups, young girls are expected to refrain from education and attend to duties in the home. Large scale political conflicts as well as disasters such as global pandemics prevent many young children from attending school. A study conducted by the University of Virginia found that the early reading skills of US children were at a 20-year low following the Covid 19 pandemic. As seen in this second interactive map by Wisevoter, these disparities in access to education across the globe mean developed countries dominate the literacy scale, while the developing countries of Central Africa and Southern Asia pool at the bottom.

Fortunately, global efforts to advance literacy continue despite recent challenges. Initiatives such as “Parton’s Imagination Library” aim to improve literacy rates across the US by providing free books to young children. In this map created by Visual Capitalist, the modern increase in access to education is highlighted by a stark difference in literacy rates between generations. Just 40 years ago the world literacy rate was as low as 68%. Further global initiatives such as the  Global Book Alliance and Global Alliance for Literacy.  aim to continue this positive trend and one day reach 100% global literacy.