The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) collects global literacy data on an annual basis and updates its statistics twice a year, in April and September. These data are based on observed data reported by countries and territories.
Countries and territories are asked to respond to a questionnaire that collects information and data on literacy. The survey package typically consists of the literacy questionnaire and supporting documentation. The primary respondent is the National or Territorial Statistical Office (or equivalent agency) within each respective country and territory.
Data collected: these consist of the counts of the literacy status (total, literate, illiterate and not specified) for the population 10 years of age and older by geography (national, urban, and rural), age group (five-year age groups and age unknown) and sex (total, male and female). The questionnaire also includes a set of metadata questions that are asked in order for the UIS and data users to better understand and interpret the literacy data provided as well as forming part of the basis for the selection criteria. In order for the UIS to evaluate the quality and format of the data for inclusion in the UIS database, it is necessary for countries to provide metadata information corresponding to the data set. In addition, much of this information is made available to data users in order to facilitate its interpretation and use.
Population and housing censuses are the primary source of basic literacy data. These data are usually collected together with other household characteristics concerning an individual’s educational, demographic and socio-economic status. These literacy data are generally based on self-declaration (i.e. one person, usually the head of the household, indicates whether each member of the household is literate or not). The literacy definition may vary from one country to another.
National sample surveys are a second source of literacy data and involve the use of a literacy variable in a household or individual sample survey. These surveys are often designed to meet immediate data needs and do not always include systematic strategies for future repeats. So even though they may provide timely data, they may not always be a consistently reliable source over time.
International sample surveys, such as UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) are a third source and involve the use of a literacy variable in a household or individual sample survey. These surveys are designed to meet commonly agreed upon international data needs while also providing data for national policy purposes. These surveys are implemented on a regular basis in selected countries globally. They aim to assure cross-national comparability although they often integrate national modules to suite specific country data needs. Modules from international surveys are sometimes added to other on-going national sample surveys.
In its efforts to improve the international comparability of literacy data, the UIS has developed the following to help determine the suitability of national data for reporting at the international level:
- It must incorporate a “direct question” to assess literacy as part of its methodology. In many instances, the question(s) take the form “Can [Name] read and write a simple sentence in [Language(s)]”.
- It must receive a satisfactory evaluation by the UIS that is based on the responses to the questionnaire’s metadata section.
- It must be able to provide data in the format required by the UIS. At the minimum, the source must be able to provide literacy counts according to the following characteristics:
Educational attainment or other data will not be used as a proxy for literacy.
Data based solely on literacy projection and estimate models will not be used.
- Geography: National, Urban and Rural if available.
- Age group: five-year age cohorts for the population aged 10 years and over (10-14, 15-19… 80-84, 85+).
- Sex (Total, Male and Female).
Internal consistency checks are conducted in order to ensure the accuracy of the data provided. When counts of the population are reported by literacy status as age unknown, these data will be removed during the processing of the questionnaire and not included in the calculation of literacy and illiteracy rates.
When counts of the population by age group are reported by literacy status as not specified, these data will be removed during the processing of the questionnaire and not included in the calculation of literacy and illiteracy rates.
The international comparability of literacy statistics has been improved in two ways by the UIS. First, the fact that the data being reported are from data sources that have a similar methodology improves comparability. Second, UN population estimates are used to calculate the number of literates and illiterates. These estimates are used because they are produced by UNPD using the same methodology and assumptions across countries. When UN population estimates are not available, national population estimates are used.
UNPD provides population estimates by single years of age for countries and territories with populations of 80,000 persons and greater. For countries or territories having a population of less than 80,000 persons, national country population data, when available, are used.
UIS makes available country level observed literacy data from the year 1975 to the present. These data are supplemented by UIS estimates when available.