Literacy Rate in the USA & its Implications for Missions

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

One would think that Americans are fairly literate group of people.  But unfortunately, many are not readers, nor even critical thinkers.  That’s not to say people aren’t smart but just that they don’t process and learn primarily through the printed word.  I’ve included below a fascinating summary of the literacy rate in the United States (source).  The implications for evangelism and discipleship both in the West and the Majority World are staggering.  For more info about oral strategies for sharing the Gospel, see this page on the Simply the Story website.

What would you guess the literacy rate is in the USA? The published literacy rate for the USA is 98%. Interestingly beside that rate, there is a note saying, "85% functionally literate." Humm? I wonder. What does "98% literate" mean then?

The National Assesment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) survey, done by the US government in 1992 and again in 2003, lists the USA as 14% Illiterate, 29% functionally illiterate, 44% preferred oral learner and 13% highly literate. Note, this report shows the percentages of those who cannot or do not PREFER to learn by reading.

It is amazing to note that many highly educated people prefer oral communication. Some describe oral communication as "mind and heart connection." For instance, would you rather read a joke or hear it told? Yes, hear it told. This is an example of the added attraction of exchanging information in person.

So, if the percentage of people in the USA who cannot or do not prefer to learn from reading is as high at 87%, what must it be in other countries? (Actually, in Canada and developed Europe, the statistical findings on literacy are the same as the NALS results for the USA.)

In some countries the literacy rate, those who can read and understand what they have read, is as low as 2 or 3%! So in order to not appear behind in education, countries lower the standard of literacy in creative ways such as, "If you can sign your name, you are literate."

The Encyclopedia Britannica will not even publish literacy rates. This is because they know that what is submitted to them is much too high, having been misrepresented to make the country's citizens appear more literate than they really are.

Those who cannot read do not live in the world of notes and outlines, of definitions and concepts. They live in the world of things that can be seen and verified by touching and seeing. The questions they most easily will answer are where, when and how … but NOT why. Oral learners, especially those with little education, may wonder "why" on many issues, but when you communicate with oral learners, to be best understood, the questions you ask need to be "whats" not "whys."

For example, to help listeners discover "why" Abram told Sarai to lie and say, "You are my sister," it is best not to be too direct. This slow questioning with any listeners, but especially oral learners, helps participants discover truth for themselves, and overrides the easy way of just giving the "right" answer.

You could ask, "What in the story was Abram's fear as they traveled to Egypt?"


So by what Abram asks Sarai to say to the Egyptians, what does this show us Abram wanted to happen?"

This way, by the use of several questions (the answers for which can be seen in the story), the "why" can be discovered by anyone as it is a provable, seen answer.

Visit Simply the Story to learn more about strategies to reach oral learners with the Gospel


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