There's a Kickstarter to bring back Reading Rainbow currently running.

One stat in particular really stands out for me:

Right now, 1 out of every 4 children in America will grow up illiterate.

This is fairly shocking to me, but the Kickstarter itself doesn't provide any sources. I was able to find the claim elsewhere, but again, no sources.

Is it true that 1 in 4 children in America grow up illiterate?

  • The line immediately after the quoted claim may add the missing definition: And: numerous studies reveal that children who can't read at grade level by the 4th grade are 400% more likely to drop out of high school. Is the site claiming that one in four Americans will not read "at grade level"?
    – Flimzy
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 13:37
  • @Flimzy Would it help if I edited the title to read "Will 1 in 4 American children grow up illiterate?" to better reflect the claim? Happy to make the edit if it makes the question better. Commented May 29, 2014 at 13:49
  • Yes, that's better... I made the edit. I didn't want to without your consent, though, as it changes the meaning of the question.
    – Flimzy
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 16:17
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    depends on which 4 children you're talking about Commented May 30, 2014 at 2:58
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    It could also be specifically English literacy. If a child can read perfectly well in Spanish (for example), but has a hard time with English, then they may count as illiterate under the 1-in-4 number. No source for that, just speculation.
    – Bobson
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:54

1 Answer 1


According to the CIA World Factbook the literacy rate for people over 15 in the US is 99%.

The claim may relate to "functional illiteracy," which seems to be a more nebulous concept:

A definition of literacy and/or functional literacy acceptable to all industrialized countries neither exists nor is it desirable (whatever inconvenience this may mean for international comparison purposes) since literacy is a complex, interdisciplinary and relativistic skill, open-ended in terms of an individual's lifetime and aspirations as well as in terms of possible adaptations to changing times and environments, which should take into account as many factors as possible directly concerning the interests of the people who matter.


  • 3
    That statistic may or may not be relevant. If the kids currently under 15 are unusually behind in literacy (which a middle school teacher I know has complained about), then it could just be that the 99% figure will sharply decline in the next 10 years.
    – Bobson
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 13:25
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    I think the statistic is likely to be relevant absent a specific claim that something has radically changed in recent years. Commented May 29, 2014 at 19:01
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    I disagree with the 'functional illiteracy' quote; just because functional literacy is difficult to define/measure doesn't mean we shouldn't attempt to define/measure it. Regardless, that quote does not provide an answer to the question asked. Commented May 29, 2014 at 20:44
  • I disagree with the sentiment of the quote, too, but I included it because it suggests that within the field, a fuzzy definition is considered acceptable. (Which obviously makes a question about a specific % harder to definitively answer.) Commented May 29, 2014 at 20:53
  • Great point. "Functional illiteracy" is sometimes effectively defined as "can read, but not as well as I think they ought to". It can have political overtones when education reformers conveniently define "functional illiteracy" as "has not mastered these specific things that are in my curriculum but that for some reason grandma never needed". The fundamental theoretical concept of what "functional illiteracy" means is reasonable, the problem is that it is impossible to actually provide a quantifiable benchmark, especially not to the point where you can administer reliable tests. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 4:26

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