The concept of literacy, which varies from country to country, generally refers to the minimum level of literacy skills. This minimum level varies from ability to communicate orally to make a check of a variety of difficult arithmetical computations. The length of schooling has, however, often been considered as a basis for distinguishing between a literate and illiterate. Trewartha (1969) considers the length of schooling not a valid basis for measurement of educational accomplishments. He also disapproves of the ability to read and write one’s name in the language of his/her country as the criterion for defining a literate.
In 1930, Finland applied perhaps the strictest definition whereby only those persons were classified as literate who passed a rather difficult test. Those who failed were divided into two categories: (i) the semi-literate persons, who could read and write but made orthographic errors; and (ii) the illiterates, who could neither read nor write (UNESCO, 1957). The Population Commission of the United Nations considers the ability to both read and write a simple message with understanding in any language as a sufficient basis for classifying a person as literate. The Indian census has adopted this definition and now many of the developing countries are shifting to this definition too. However, a distinction can be made between the literates and the educated as has been done in the case of India. All those persons who are classified as literates on the basis of their ability to both read and write are further sub-divided into a number of categories on the basis of their length of schooling.
There are inter-regional and intra-regional variations in the literacy rate. The literacy variations are quite significant between the developed and the developing countries. In general, low literacy rates are associated with high birth rates. If a population is illiterate, it will tend to change slowly and to resist new ideas and innovations. Illiteracy is a form of isolation. Illiteracy takes away from man his dignity, perpetuates ignorance, poverty, mental isolation, and friendly international relations and thus hampers socio-economic and cultural advancement.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the countries with the high birth rates have high proportion of illiterate population.