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Nearly 2 million Korean adults illiterate: survey

Lower literacy levels linked with higher age, lower income and less education

About 2 million adults in South Korea are illiterate, the Ministry of Education said Tuesday.

According to the National Institute for Lifelong Education’s survey on adult literacy, 4.5 percent of the country’s 44 million adults, or about 1.987 million people, do not have the basic reading, writing and math skills that are necessary for daily life. They were categorized as Level 1 in the survey, meaning they need elementary school education at the first or second grade level.

The proportion of illiterate adults had decreased by 2.7 percentage points since the last survey in 2017, the ministry said.

On the other hand, the proportion of adults at Level 4, those with literacy levels equivalent to that of a middle school graduate, recorded 79.8 percent, up 2.2 percentage points since the last survey.

There were 1.85 million people, or 4.2 percent of the adult population, who were capable of basic reading, writing and math but could not use those skills in everyday life, the survey showed. They tested at Level 2, meaning they require elementary school education at the third to sixth grade levels.

According to the survey, lower literacy levels among adults were correlated with higher age, lower household income, lower education levels and living in rural areas or fishing villages.

To increase awareness about literacy education, the Education Ministry and the National Institute for Lifelong Education are holding a ceremony Wednesday to mark September as the month of literacy. UNESCO designated Sept. 8 as International Literacy Day in 1967.

During the ceremony, the ministry plans to offer lectures on literacy education, including one on American-born singer Maria Leise’s experience of learning Korean. The event will begin at 4 p.m. and be streamed live via the institute’s YouTube channel.

“As the results of the adult literacy survey show, our country still has a large population of illiterates,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said.

“The Ministry of Education will not only provide its utmost support for literacy learners so they can continue to live a happy life by communicating with the world through writing, but also expand the support for digital and media literacy in consideration of technical and social changes.”

The Education Ministry and the institute have conducted the adult literacy level survey every three years since 2014. For this year’s survey, researchers met face to face with 10,429 people over the age of 18 across the country from October through January.

More details are available on the websites of the National Institute for Lifelong Education and the Korean Statistical Information Service.

By Kan Hyeong-woo (
Korea Herald Youtube