|Educational attainment and adult literacy A descriptive account of 31 Sub-Saharan Africacountries|
||Demographic Research, 33(35): 1015-1034; DOI: 10.4054/DemRes.2015.33.35
Multiple African Countries
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.
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
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.
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.