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Literacy of Older Adults in America

May 1997

As part of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) of 1992, the National Center for Education Statistics has published a separate study that focuses on the literacy skills of older adults in the United States--people 60 years old and above. The report looks at the literacy skills of the population from a variety of perspectives, such as age, sex, amount of education, race or ethnic background, income, and geographic region of the country.

The results for this survey were reported in the same way as the survey done for adults below the age of 60. A quick reminder--adults received proficiency scores (0-500) for three categories, or scales, each representing a distinct aspect of literacy: prose, document, and quantitative. For each of those scales, five levels of proficiency were defined. Level 1 represents the lowest and Level 5 the highest achievement.

Prose literacy, for the purpose of this survey, is defined as "the skills needed to understand and use information from texts that include editorials, news stories, poems, and fiction" (p. 3). Using such skills as inference, interpretation, locating information in a text are key to the prose sections of the survey. On the other hand, Document literacy refers to "the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in materials that include job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and graphs" (p. 3). Quantitative literacy refers to "the knowledge and skills required to apply arithmetic operations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials; for example, balancing a checkbook, figuring out a tip, completing an order form, or determining the amount of interest from a loan advertisement" (p. 3). Each of the participants in the survey was evaluated based on these three aspects of literacy.

Some interesting statistics from the survey:

Literacy Proficiencies in the Older Adult Population

Education and Literacy

Civic Participation and Economic Status

Literacy Practices

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Literacy of Older Adults in America: Results from the National Adult Literacy Survey, NCES 97-576, by Helen Brown, Robert Prisuta, Bella Jacobs, and Anne Campbell. Washington, DC: 1996.

You may receive a free copy of the study, while supplies last, from the National Library of Education (E-mail: or 1-800-424-1616. An executive summary of the 187 page report is available on the web at or by contacting the Ohio Literacy Resource Center.

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