Volume 33 - Article 35 | Pages 1015–1034
Background: More than 60 years ago the international community declared literacy a basic human right. Recognition of its intrinsic value and evidence of its social and economic benefits have motivated an expansive international effort to estimate the percentage of adults that can read, especially in low-income countries where educational opportunities are limited. Population data on adults’ educational attainment is commonly used to approximate adult literacy rates. Though increasing evidence from school-based studies of pupils confirm literacy achievement is not universal - even at advanced grades - it remains unclear whether adults’ educational attainment is reflective of their literacy.
Objective: This study leverages population-based data that include direct assessments of adults' literacy skills to provide a descriptive account of the proportion of adults that can read at each level of educational attainment. The study focuses on the Sub-Saharan African context, a world region where school participation has expanded rapidly in the last three decades. Because many African adults have discontinued their education at the primary level, the study focuses on basic reading skills at each level of primary school. The study focuses specifically on women, whose literacy has garnered extensive international interest.
Results: Demographic and Health Survey data from 31 African countries confirm that there are many instances in which women have several years of primary school but cannot read. In fact, in some countries, large proportions of African women who never went to school can read, even as some of their peers who have completed primary school cannot. The weak correlation between educational attainment and literacy is not specific to older cohorts of women, but is also observed among younger women.
Conclusions: The findings demonstrate that educational attainment is generally a poor proxy for literacy, highlighting the need to measure, theorize, and study literacy as empirically distinct from education.
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