United States

Jackson Millera
Matthew Duque
Insight Policy Research

Language and Literacy

English is the primary language used in the United States. In 2015, 79 percent of the population age 5 or older spoke only English at home.1 In most cases, English is the only language necessary for holding a job that requires interaction with the general public. English also is the language of instruction in most classrooms. Spanish is the second most used language in the country, with approximately 13 percent of the population speaking Spanish at home.2 The remaining 8 percent of the population uses one of many languages that fall into the US Census Bureau’s Other Indo‑European, Asian/Pacific Island, and Other Languages categories.3

All levels of government in the United States promote English literacy. At the state and local levels, libraries serve as key resources to promote literacy: In fiscal year 2012, state and local governments funded about 9,080 public libraries serving communities, districts, or regions.4 Public libraries in the United States allow residents to borrow an assortment of materials such as fiction and nonfiction books, reference sources, electronic resources, movies, and music without charge. Besides providing free and virtually unlimited access to books and electronic resources, public libraries often provide free programs for children such as story hours and summer reading events that promote literacy. Most elementary and secondary schools in the United States also have library media centers that make available printed, audiovisual, and computer resources to students, teachers, and administrators.5

At the national level, the US Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965; since its passage, ESEA has helped shape state and local education policy.6 In 2015, ESEA was reauthorized for the first time since 2001 as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Overall, ESEA supports the implementation of innovative reading and literacy programs for all children, from birth through the 12th grade, through funding to state and local governments.7 The federal government, through the US Department of Education, also funds national not for profit organizations and state and local agencies to support programs that promote reading and improve literacy.

  • a The 2016 version of the United States chapter of the PIRLS Encyclopedia builds on the 2011 version authored by Anindita Sen, Ariana Harner, Laura Warren, and Lydia Malley at the American Institutes for Research.