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Research to Practice: Adult Literacy in the United States: A Compendium of Quantitative Data and Interpretive Comments

by Thomas G. Sticht and William B. Armstrong reviewed by Margarete Epstein

Sticht and Armstrong wrote this compendium of research for the National Institute for Literacy. This overview ranges from the earliest adult literacy assessments conducted by the military during WWI, to the most recent assessment, the National Adult Literacy Survey conducted in 1993.

This report is designed for the adult literacy professional who desires a more in-depth understanding of the research background that has often directed the focus of adult literacy practices. Sticht and Armstrong begin the article with a clear theoretical stance, which frames their interpretation of the research. They then cover the major research design and findings from the military and civilian literature. The compendium includes liberal examples of the actual test items used for the various tests and studies. Later they discuss the special issues of the research in light of workforce participation, intergenerational literacy, and listening and reading skills correlation. They conclude with the quantitative research on the effect of adult basic education efforts.


Authors' Theoretical Position
Sticht and Armstrong use human cognitive system and information processing theories as their theoretical base. These theoretical perspectives includes the following:

In short, there is a continuum of increased literacy through ongoing learning of new knowledge and of literacy skills. Literacy learning is dependent on listening skills and experience, literacy opportunities and practice, and the general body of knowledge often created through these experiences. Learning is processed through constructivist activities. The individual constantly builds on new information through existing knowledge structures. One of the primary emphases throughout the compendium is that high literacy level is correlated with several factors:

Quantitative Studies of Intelligence and Literacy Assessments Military origins of intelligence assessment

WWI Alpha and Beta Tests
"Alpha" and "Beta" tests were used as measures of assessment in WWI. These tests were based on the theory that intelligence was innate, so test designers used 2 types of tests to assess intelligence, those for literate individuals (Alpha) and those for low-literate, non-literate or non-English speaking persons (Beta). These tests differed in the following ways:

both tests used aspects of literacy ability; although the Alpha test specifically used reading, both demanded that the individual examine graphical displays of information and interpret and communicate something about that information (a distinct literacy act).

The Army General Classification Test of WWII
This test did not measure native intelligence. The researchers wanted to measure "general learning ability." Scores were used to assign individuals to different "grades" ranging from I to V (fastest learners to slowest respectively). As a result of the findings of the exam, the entire classification grade V was "excluded from service" in 1948.

Armed Forces Qualification Test
In 1950 another test was designed for incoming armed forces recruits (AFQT). Speed was not emphasized in this test as it had been in the general classification test. Instructions for test questions were made more explicit. These tests were used to group test takers into "mental categories." Of the five grades the grade level V was excluded again from opportunity to serve.

Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB)
In 1973 the ASVAB Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, which included aptitude subtests, was added to the AFQT. The following findings are significant for the ASVAB tests:

  • Females outperform males in coding speed, numerical operations, and paragraph comprehension.
  • Males outperform females in math knowledge, electronics, general science, auto and shop information categories.
  • The trend for African-Americans between men and women is the same as for whites.
  • Whites outperform African-Americans in all subtests.
  • Correlations between tests show that greater knowledge in diverse areas of highly literate people increases scores on all subtests (the converse is true for lower literate individuals).

    National Civilian Studies of Literacy Assessment
    These studies differ from the military tests primarily in design. Civilian tests focus on use of "real world" test items and open-ended questions rather than multiple choice items. The studies are as follows:

    The Young Adult Literacy Survey and the National Adult Literacy Survey both used scale categories. There were five categories. An important point made by the authors is that if a person is categorized at a certain level this does not mean that s/he cannot perform higher than that level. It only means that the probability is lower for performance at higher levels.

    These studies varied, but the focus for most was "real world" functional test items in which the subject would read an ad and answer some questions about it, or calculate the answer to a math question. Results of these civilian studies showed the same strong trends evident through the various military studies, which are:

    Some Specific Findings of Importance to the Adult Basic Education Practitioner
    In general, listening skills are higher than reading skills, so a test that determines a person's listening skill level indicates a "reading potential" that is higher than the actual reading ability of a non- or low-level reader. Based on this it was assumed that adults who sought out literacy improvement would be able to progress more quickly than children, since the adults would have years more experience in listening and oral comprehension of language. This is not so, however, according to some data collected by Sticht and James. The implications are that adults who wish to make significant gains in the area of literacy will need help in increasing overall knowledge and listening and language comprehension to make strides in increased levels of listening skills and reading. Intergenerational literacy is another important facet of increasing literacy for individuals throughout society. The higher one's parents' education (especially the mother's) the higher one's own literacy skills will be. Consequently, the cycle of literacy development is intricately intertwined with the parent's literacy levels. Finally, literacy level affects job status. One's job status and income level is tied to one's education and one's literacy level.

  • Sticht, Thomas G. & Armstrong, William B. (1994). Adult Literacy in the United States: ACompendium of Quantitative Data and Interpretive Comments. San Diego Community College District.

    Some related articles

  • The Economics of Literacy
  • The State Adult Literacy Survey: A Look at Results for Ohio
  • Literacy, Welfare and Work
  • Family Literacy Fact Sheet




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