Literacy, also known as the ability to read and write effectively, is an incredibly important skill that humans need to thrive in our modern world.
Reading and writing is a basic necessity that affects the types of jobs people get, which in turn determines the lifestyle and quality of life they have. It also directly affects poverty, crime statistics, tax dollars, life expectancy, and basic communication with others.
Those who can’t read and write are also barred from assisting their children with their education in the future, which can perpetuate the cycle.
On a global scale, literacy rates differ from country to country. The average global literacy rate is 86.3%, which is relatively high. However, many countries, particularly less-developed nations, struggle to maintain a positive literacy rate.
In this article, you will learn about the countries with the highest literacy rate, along with the countries with the lowest literacy rate, and how it correlates with various factors, such as gender and poverty.
10 Countries with High Literacy Rates
Let’s take a look at the ten countries with the highest literacy rate in the world. The majority of these countries are located in Europe and the Middle East.
Uzbekistan is the country with the highest literacy rate as of 2018, with over 99.99% of its population able to read and write. Males ages 15 and above are reported to have a 100% literacy rate, while adult females have a 99.99% literacy rate.
Since becoming an independent country in 1991, Uzbekistan’s government has prioritized education and vocational training. They invest in educational infrastructure, curriculums, and teachers. As a result, they have seen a 97 percent enrollment rate in their primary schools and over 60 successful secondary and post-secondary institutions.
As the most literate country globally, Uzbekistan continues to expand its education efforts to provide access to reading, writing, and math tools to students in rural areas and with disabilities.
The second most literate country in the world is Ukraine, with a literacy rate of 99.97% for adults ages 15 and up. The country has made great strides in the past 20 years to reduce the number of illiterate persons.
The third most literate country in the world is San Marino, a small microstate located in north-central Italy. They boast a whopping 99.92% of literate adults over the age of 15.
The educational system in San Marino is similar to that of Italy. All schools through secondary school are free to attend, with students participating in 32 hours of schooling six days a week. The country has some of the smallest class sizes in Southern Europe, with an average of six students per teacher.
Not far behind San Marino is the country of Latvia, with a literacy rate of 99.89%. Their lowest literacy rate was recorded in 1989, at 99.5%.
Estonia also has a literacy rate of 99.89%. Although most countries’ male population tend to have higher literacy rates than their female counterparts, in Estonia, women have a literacy rate of 99.91% compared with 99.86% in men.
Overall, Estonia has seen its literacy rate grow over the past several decades. In 1989, they had a literacy rate of 99.6% for all adults over the age of 15.
The Czech Republic has a literacy rate of 99.83%.
In the Czech Republic, schools are not state-funded until elementary school. This is mandatory for all students until the age of fifteen when students can choose to pursue higher education, vocational school, military training, or cease formal schooling.
Lithuania holds the seventh-highest literacy rate in the world. 99.82% of their adult population over the age of 15 can read and write. This is a significant increase from their standings in 1989 when the literacy rate was 98.4%.
Tajikistan has a literacy rate of 99.8%. Males in the country have a literacy rate of 99.82%, compared with females at 99.7%.
Azerbaijan ranks ninth in the top ten countries, with the highest literacy rate at 99.79%. Men have a literacy rate of 99.86% compared to women, who have a literacy rate of 99.72%.
At number ten, Kazakhstan has a literacy rate of 99.78%. Adult women in the country have a literacy rate of 99.74%.
10 Most Illiterate Countries in the World
Unfortunately, there are also countries with extremely low literacy rates, the majority of which are located in North Central Africa.
Chad has the lowest literacy rate in the world at 22.31%. 47% of the country is 14 years old or younger, with one out of every two school-age children being girls.
There are many present challenges in the country regarding education and improving the literacy rate. Parents must pay for their child’s tuition and teacher salaries, which prohibits low-income families from sending their children to school. Furthermore, girls are much less likely than boys to attend school.
Guinea has the second lowest literacy rate in the world at 32%. Although the first few years of schooling are free, many students who live in rural areas cannot attend the entire time, which leads to low enrollment rates in middle and secondary education.
Parents of secondary students must pay school fees, which eliminates low-income families from sending their children to school.
The literacy rate in South Sudan is 34.52%. They have been a country since their split from the Republic of Sudan in 2011, and in that time, only 35% of men have been recorded as able to read and write alongside 19.2% of women.
The majority of parents in the country need their children to work for a living to help the family survive. This drastically affects enrollment rates and keeps the literacy rate low. There have been several initiatives to increase literacy in the country, particularly in women and girls.
Next up is Niger, with a literacy rate of 35.05%. Although enrollment in school is generally high in the country, most students who finish primary school are unable to read or write. This is largely due to challenges such as poverty and food insecurity, which drastically impact attendance.
Mali has a literacy rate of 35.47%. There is a significant lack of proper educational facilities as well as a steadily increasing poverty rate. These factors have led to only 67% of students being enrolled in school.
Central African Republic
The Central African Republic comes in sixth with a literacy rate of 37.40%. The educational system in the country has many challenges to overcome, including regions that are under rebel control and lack security. Many schools are closed due to these conflicts.
As of 2018, Burkina Faso had a literacy rate of 41.22%. Over 70% of adults are illiterate, with an enrollment rate of only 39.1%.
Eighth on the list is Benin, with a literacy rate of 42.36%. This is a significant improvement compared to their 1977 literacy rate of 16.48%.
Afghanistan has a literacy rate of 43.02%. There are currently 10 million illiterate individuals, however, 65% of youths ages 15 to 24 can read and write. Women have a literacy rate of 29.8%.
Sierra Leone’s literacy rate sits at 43.21%. This is a 9% increase compared to their literacy rate numbers in 2013.
Gender and Literacy
There are approximately 781 million adults in the world that cannot read or write. Of this number, two-thirds are women.
This disparity occurs for several reasons. Many countries and cultures expect girls and young women to remain at home to care for the household, raise children, and prepare meals. For girls that are allowed to go to school initially, things like early marriage and menstruation are common reasons why girls are required to stay home.
Religion and government law can also play a factor in whether or not girls are allowed to go to school.
Although the literacy rates for female adults remain high, the number of illiterate girls under the age of 15 is slowly decreasing, thanks to increased educational efforts and changes in cultural expectations. This has positive impacts on the economy, with an average 3% growth in gross domestic product for every 10% increase in female students.
Poverty and Literacy
Poverty also has a huge effect on literacy rates. For starters, quality education with safe schools and knowledgeable teachers is simply lacking in many poverty-stricken areas. In addition to being less available, many families require their children to work rather than attend school to help bring in money for simple survival.
Related: Poorest Countries in Africa
Other interrelated factors such as lack of housing, food insecurity, and poor nutrition, and inadequate access to quality healthcare also have a direct effect on a student’s ability to attend school and receive an education.