A long-awaited federal study found that an estimated 32 million adults in the USA — about one in seven — are saddled with such low literacy skills it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book or to understand a medication’s side effects listed on a pill bottle, according to USA Today.
Overall, the study found, the nation hasn’t made a dent in its adult-literacy problem: From 1992 to 2003, it shows the USA added about 23 million adults to its population; in that period, an estimated 3.6 million more joined the ranks of adults with low literacy skills. “They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected,” says Sheida White, a researcher at the U.S. Education Department.
The findings come from the department’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), a survey of more than 19,000 Americans ages 16 and older. The 2003 survey was a follow-up to a similar one in 1992 and, for the first time, allows the public to see literacy rates as far down as county levels. In many cases, states made sizable gains. In Mississippi, the percentage of adults with low skills dropped 9 percentage points, from 25 percent to 16 percent. In every one of its 82 counties, low-skill rates dropped — in a few cases by 20 percentage points or more. By contrast, in several large states — California, New York, Florida and Nevada, for instance — the number of adults with low skills rose.
These statistics are not surprising; they are shocking, numbing to be exact. How could this country, be so ‘advanced’, yet be so illiterate? Does it mean that literacy is not really important? Can we, as a country, continue to ‘advance’ without being able to communicate? Or, are the illiterate masses just dead-weight and can be ignored like sticks on a woodland trail?
Let’s begin to ponder this by agreeing on a definition of literacy. The United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.”(NRC 2012) But, let’s also look at other definitions that are in use.
Various government agencies label individuals who can read a couple of thousand simple words they learned by sight in the first four grades in school as literate. Other sources may term such individuals functionally illiterate if they are unable to use basic sources of written information like warning labels and driving directions. The World Factbook, prepared by the CIA, defines literacy in the United States as “age 15 and over can read and write.” In most, if not all, cases, the literacy rates are not entirely measurable.
This, then, is the first issue of contention when discussing literacy, “What is the definition of literacy?” I submit, as a leader of a non-profit group founded to promote literacy, the UNESCO definition comes closest to describing literacy. Literacy is more than just being able to read and maybe comprehend a few words or sign your name on a document. It includes an important factor, life-time learning. As a literate person, you can read the newspaper, read magazines, read candidate literature, so that when you go to the polls to vote, you are an informed voter. As a literate person, you provide yourself with the tools necessary to access information, interpret that information and use it to “participate fully in the wider society.”
It is in being able to interpret accurately information, where one in seven adults in America runs into trouble. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) says these people can only read at the level of children’s picture books. True, some of the advertising and even candidate literature seems to be not too far above that level. Though this sounds cynical, the point is the people who write this information know their readers aren’t capable of reading at any higher level. Case in point, in marketing material I received, one of the recommendations was “Your script should be simple and clear enough for a six-year-old to understand.” For as long as I can remember, educators have said newspapers are written to the eighth grade level. Where does that leave one in seven adults in this country? In the dark, unable to read information about current events, not knowing, or at least not reading first hand, news about the NSA debacle or the current changes to health care in this country, for instance.
Healthcare, is a topic that concerns nearly every adult. Many U.S. adults lack health literacy or the ability to read and follow the kinds of instructions routinely given for self-care or to family caregivers after medical procedures or hospital stays. Physicians routinely discuss medications with their patients when they prescribe them. But, do patients understand the physician? Many do not. This is dangerous. Consider a patient in severe pain who may have been prescribed narcotic pain medication that can be toxic at higher levels, but it doesn’t work well immediately; so, the patient takes more pills. The patient is unable to read the warnings distributed with the medication, stating that taking more medication than is prescribed is harmful. The patient is unable to read and/or comprehend the list of side effects and information as to symptoms of overdose. Because the patient can’t read or interpret this information, his/her life is now threatened unless there is immediate intervention.
The healthcare.gov website is yet another stumbling block for people who lack literacy efficiency. Reading, understanding, interpreting and choosing the right plan for them could be an impossibility, assuming they were able to navigate the website to get to the marketplace listing the over 100 plans available. Assuming the person gets to the plan market place, he/she will probably just pick one, with no understanding of the plan, it’s coverage or cost. This person is unlikely to ask for help. Most people, who are illiterate, hide their handicap well, through years of practice. At any rate, this person now has a plan but has no idea what it covers. How many people are in this situation? Over 32 million adults, the NAAL study found.
Data from the NAAL and other surveys and assessments are likely to underestimate the problem of literacy in the United States. Literacy demands are increasing because of the rapid growth of information and communication technologies, while the literacy assessments to date have focused on the simplest forms of literacy skill. And, it’s getting worse. The reading skills of American adults are significantly lower than those of adults in most other developed countries, according to a new international survey. What’s more, over the last two decades Americans’ reading proficiency has declined across most age groups, and has only improved significantly for 65-year-olds. The study of 160,000 people by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is composed of two dozen developed nations, found that U.S. adults had reading levels that were below average.
Kozol (2011) stated that given a paycheck and the stub that lists the usual deductions, 26 percent of adult Americans cannot determine if their paycheck is correct. Thirty-six percent, given a W-4 form, cannot enter the right number of exemptions in the proper places on the form. Forty-four percent, when given a series of “help-wanted” ads, cannot match their qualifications to the job requirements. Twenty-two percent cannot address a letter well enough to guarantee that it will reach its destination. Twenty-four percent cannot add their own correct return address to the same envelope. Twenty percent cannot understand an “equal opportunity” announcement. Over 60 percent, given a series of “for sale” advertisements for products new and used, cannot calculate the difference between prices for new and used items. Over 20 percent cannot write a check that will be processed by their bank—or will be processed in the right amount. Over 40 percent are unable to determine the correct amount of change they should receive, given a cash register receipt and the denomination of the bill used for payment.
So, what can be done to improve adult literacy? There is a surprising lack of rigorous research on effective approaches to adult literacy instruction, according to the NAAL report. But, research with younger populations can guide the development of instructional approaches for adults, if it is modified to account for two major differences in the groups.
One is that adults may experience age-related neurocognitive declines that affect reading and writing processes and speed of learning. The second is that adults bring varied life experiences, knowledge and motivations for learning that need attention in the design of literacy instruction for them. Literacy is a complex skill that requires thousands of hours of practice, but many adults do not persist in adult literacy instruction long enough or have enough time to practice outside the instructional setting to reach their goals. The problem of high attrition needs to be resolved for adults to receive sufficient practice and instruction (NRC 2012).
In general, adults have been slower than younger people to embrace the technological revolution that began in the last decades of the 20th century. Technology affects nearly every aspect of life in the 21st century from how we “talk” with our family and friends, to how we shop, to how and where we work. Quicker and more efficient transportation and communication services have made it easier for people, goods, services and capital to move around the world, leading to the globalization of economies. New means of communication and types of services have changed the way individuaOECD,ls interact with governments, service suppliers and each other. These social and economic transformations have, in turn, changed the demand for skills as well. While there are many factors responsible for these changes, let us look briefly at technological developments, particularly information and communications technologies, because they have profoundly altered what are considered to be the “key information-processing skills” that individuals need as economies and societies evolve in the 21st century.
With manufacturing and other low-skill tasks in the services sector increasingly becoming automated, the need for routine cognitive and craft skills is declining, while the demand for information-processing skills and other high-level cognitive and interpersonal skills is growing. In addition to mastering occupation-specific skills, workers in the 21st century must also have a stock of information-processing skills, including literacy, numeracy and problem solving, and “generic” skills, such as interpersonal communication, self-management, and the ability to learn, to help them prepare for the uncertainties of a rapidly changing labor market.
Improving the supply of skills is only half the story: skills shortages co-exist with high unemployment; and better use can be made of existing skills. There is growing interest among policy makers not only in creating the right incentives for firms and individuals to invest in developing skills, but also in ensuring that economies fully use the skills available to them. To that end, the OECD Skills Strategy emphasized three pillars: developing relevant skills, activating skills supply, and putting skills to effective use (OECD 2012).
Four major national literacy efforts now exist in this country. One is the government’s official program, Adult Basic Education (ABE). A second is the U.S. military’s program of remediation for its recruits. Together, these two efforts claim to reach between 2 and 3 million people. The military, however, usually does not accept a person reading at below the fifth grade level. Adult Basic Education is not legally restricted from admitting persons reading at the lowest levels; but, the traditional modes of ABE discourage their participation. Its methods of recruitment, institutional setting, replication of a school-like situation, physical distance from the neighborhoods in which the poorest and least literate people live, as well as the mechanistic nature of the methods it employs, have virtually assured that few of those who read below the fifth grade level will begin, complete, or ever have a chance to hear about its programs.
For those who do participate, the figures for “separation” or incompletion are disastrous. Forty percent of those who enter ABE are “separated.” Only thirty percent of those who leave these programs prior to completion do so because they have achieved their goals. Other reasons given in a recent poll are: inconvenient scheduling of classes, physical distance causing transportation problems, change of address, conflicts with employers, lack of interest … All, with the possible exception of employer conflicts, apply with equal force to dropout rates from public schools. Those who failed in public school are those, too frequently, who will be failed by ABE as well. The other two programs are privately supported. Laubach Literacy serves fifty thousand people. Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) serves twenty thousand. These and several church-run programs do effective work with those they reach; but those they reach, are very few when looking at the 32 million NAAL found who are illiterate (Kozol 2011).
How do the illiterate find out about these programs? There are advertisements in newspapers, on community bulletin boards and in church bulletins. An often seen and used cartoon critical of these announcements says: “If you can’t read this message call 1-800-LIT-ERAT.” On a more serious side, employers assist employees that are found to have low skill literacy by recommending classes given in the company or in a community college setting. However, these are the functionally illiterate and may be more motivated to improve their skills. If they are illiterate, their having a job or any means of gainful employment might be nearly impossible. They would either be unaware or ineligible to participate in any of these programs.
The NRC (2012) said a significant portion of the U.S. population was likely to continue, at least in the near term, to experience inadequate literacy and require instruction as adults: the most recent main National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (2009) showed only 38 percent of twelfth graders performed at or above the proficient level in reading; this achievement was higher than the percentage in 2005; but not significantly different from earlier assessment years. Although 74 percent of twelfth graders were at or above basic, 26 percent were below basic near the end of high school. When taking into account race and ethnicity, only 22 percent were at or above basic reading levels near the end of high school; 78 percent were below basic. Results were similar for twelfth graders with disabilities: 38 percent were at or above basic reading levels; 62 percent were below basic.
Given these statistics, it is not surprising that, although originally designed for older adults, adult literacy education programs increasingly are attended by youths ages 16 to 20. In 2003, more than half of participants in federally funded adult literacy programs were 25 or younger.
The problem of inadequate literacy was also found by colleges, especially community colleges. More than half of community college students enroll in at least one developmental education course during their college tenure to remediate weak skills. Data from an initiative called Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count provide the best information on students’ difficulties in remedial instruction. The study included more than 250,000 students from 57 colleges in seven states who were enrolled for the first time from fall 2003 to fall 2004. Of the total, 59 percent were referred for remedial instruction, and 33 percent of the referrals were specifically for reading. After 3 years, fewer than 4 in 10 students had completed the entire sequence of remedial courses to which they had been referred. About 30 percent of students referred to developmental education did not enroll in any remedial course, and about 60 percent of those who did enroll did not enroll in the specific course to which they had been referred. Notably, according to the NAAL survey, proficiency in prose literacy was evident in only 31 percent of U.S. adults with a 4-year college degree.
A major problem for literacy programs across the country is funding. While the number of adults seeking help grows year by year, government funding for literacy programs remains low, given the extent of the problem. From 1975 through 1999, the number of adults enrolled in programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Division of Adult Education and Literacy increased from 1.2 million in 1975 to 4.3 million in 1999, or by about 118,000 per year. The total annual government expenditure for adults in literacy education programs is approximately $310 per enrollee. By contrast, the government spends about $7,500 per enrollee in the K–12 system and $16,000 per enrollee in the higher education system. As a result, adult literacy programs are often under-funded (ProLiteracy America 2003).
The current Federal appropriation ($571,000,000) coupled with state and local funds ($1.6 billion) allow ONLY 3 percent of the 90,000,000 who could benefit from adult education to access classes and other services. There is an educational services waiting list of a minimum of 100,000 adults, according to the National Council of State Directors of Education (2009). Education grants are available to colleges and universities, but not to individuals, at least in numbers that would be beneficial.
In summary, It is clear that a significant proportion of U.S. adults do not have the
high level of literacy in both print and digital media required for negotiating many aspects of life in the 21st century. More than 90 million U.S. adults are estimated to lack adequate literacy; only 38 percent of U.S. twelfth graders are at or above ‘proficient’ in reading (National Assessment of Educational Progress 2008) and more than 50 percent of recent 250,000 community college student enrollees were referred to at least one developmental (remedial) education course to remediate weak skills during their college tenure, with about one-third of them referred specifically for reading. Furthermore, the estimated 2.6 million adults enrolled in federally funded programs in 2005 showed variable progress in their literacy skills, and their skill gains were insufficient to achieve functional literacy.
There is a surprising lack of research on the effectiveness of the various instructional practices for adults seeking to improve their literacy skills. The lack of relevant research is especially striking given the long history of both federal funding for adult education programs, albeit stretched thin, and reliance on developmental education courses to remediate college students’ skills. Few studies of adult literacy focus on the development of reading and writing
skills. There is also inadequate knowledge about assessment and ongoing monitoring of adult students’ proficiencies, weaknesses, instructional environments, and progress, which might guide instructional planning.
Though there is a dearth of relevant research with the target adult population,
extensive research on reading and writing processes and difficulties of younger students, emerging research on literacy and learning in adolescents and adults with normal reading
capability, and extremely limited research on adult literacy learners is available. Until
the necessary research is conducted with adults who receive literacy instruction outside the K-12 system, I conclude that it is reasonable to apply the wealth of available research on learning and literacy with other populations on the adult population. Findings from this research can provide guidance about the reading and writing skills to target with instruction and principles for designing instructional practices, technologies, assessments, and preparation for teachers.
The contexts in which adults receive literacy instruction are highly varied. People who need to develop their literacy skills receive instruction in many different types of programs, including adult basic education, community colleges, general educational development (GED) programs or ABE programs, workplace literacy programs, university remedial education programs, citizenship programs, English language learning programs, basic skills and job training centers, among others. While some of the adults receiving literacy instruction may have attained certain levels and forms of literacy, they lack the range and level of reading and writing skills required for education, work, parental and family responsibilities, and other purposes. The literature on adult literacy indicates that a wide range of largely untested theoretical frameworks, practices, texts, and tools are used in literacy instruction with adults. At present, there are neither clear objectives for the development of literacy skills nor standards for curricula and practice that take into consideration research on component reading and writing skills, valued literacy tasks linked to learning goals, and the social and cultural backgrounds and motivations of learners. Programs also differ in whether they provide or facilitate access to services for transportation, child care, and psychological counseling, which might affect the ability of certain segments of the population to engage in and persist with learning.
In conclusion, the outlook is bleak. It is clear the literacy problems of adults will continue well into the 21st century. We honestly don’t know how to fix them. Research isn’t there nor is the funding available to facilitate the research. This reality indicates to me that we, as a country, will continue to fall behind other developed nations, because literacy is the key to progress.
Kozol, Jonathan. 2011. Illiterate America (Kindle Locations 214-215). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
NRC (National Research Council). 2012. Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research. The National Academies Press, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13242
National Council of State Directors of Education. 2009. Adult Education and Literacy Fact Sheet. Washington, DC.
OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). 2013. The Survey of Adult Skills: Reader’s Companion. OECD Publishing,
ProLiteracy America. 2003. U.S. Adult Literacy Programs: A Review of Research on Positive Outcomes Achieved by Literacy Programs and the People They Serve. http://www.proliteracy.org