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West Virginians rank a little above the national average as regards the ability to read and write at acceptable levels. A 1998 report from the National Institute for Literacy indicated that 20 percent of West Virginians over age 16 function at ‘‘Level 1’’ literacy, the lowest category, as opposed to 22 percent nationally. Level 1 literacy includes those adults who have difficulty reading and comprehending a short newspaper article, reading a street map, or calculating costs on an order form. In a separate report, the U.S. Department of Education estimated that 17 percent of West Virginia adults have significant difficulty with literacy tasks relating to everyday life and work.

Such people may be able to read or write in a rudimentary fashion, and are thus not illiterate in the traditional sense, but they lack the literacy skills necessary to manage a successful, fulfilling life. The completely illiterate, those unable to read or write at all, comprise a much smaller part of the population, now estimated at two percent to four percent. This number has decreased significantly over time, from a fifth or more of the population in West Virginia’s early years as a state.

Literacy is unevenly distributed across the state, generally improving from south to north and reflecting the education levels and relative affluence of West Virginia counties. Eight of the 11 counties with Level 1 literacy rates of 25 percent or higher lie south of the Kanawha River in the southern coalfields. Statewide, individual counties range from Monongalia and Putnam (the best, at 14 percent Level 1 literacy) to McDowell (37 percent).

The group known as Literacy West Virginia is the main non-governmental organization working to improve literacy skills in West Virginia. Literacy West Virginia resulted from a 2004 merger of the West Virginia chapters of the two main national literacy groups, Literacy Volunteers of America and Lauback Literacy Action. More than 1,000 volunteer tutors provide reading instruction to adult students throughout the state. Most volunteer programs are affiliated with Literacy West Virginia and based in libraries, churches, and community centers.

The West Virginia Adult Basic Education program of the state Department of Education has official responsibility for literacy training. The Governor’s Council on Literacy, created in 1991, assists in coordinating and expanding literacy efforts in West Virginia. The council, composed of 25 individuals representing libraries, education, business, labor, government, higher education, and others, sponsors an annual scholarship program for GED graduates, distributes literacy mini-grants, coordinates family literacy services, conducts public awareness and outreach efforts, and facilitates linkages with business and industry.