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Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey

Review by Jane M. Schierloh

Recently a colleague of mine heard a news reporter announce that the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) found that nearly half of Americans are illiterate. This is a gross misstatement of the survey's findings. How-ever, the survey did find that 90 million, or nearly half of American adults have limited literacy skills. That's a startling statement! But what does it really mean? Those of us who are involved in promoting adult literacy and providing literacy services need to be know- ledgeable about the results of this important survey, the largest and most comprehensive assessment of adult literacy ever funded by the federal government.

The following review is written for the busy adult literacy provider. Its purposes are threefold: (1) to summarize relevant findings, (2) to highlight findings that may be of particular interest to those involved in GED® preparation, family literacy, correctional education, and work with beginning readers, and (3) to interpret findings and comment on their significance.

The aim of the NALS was to create a profile of the English literacy skills of adults in the United States using tasks and materials that are typical of those they encounter in their daily lives, e.g., bus schedules, bank deposit slips, newspaper articles, unit price information on groceries.

It was a large study. In all, over 26,000 adults were surveyed. Participants were interviewed in their homes by trained interviewers for about an hour. They were asked to perform tasks based on three kinds of materials: prose materials (e.g., magazine and news-paper articles, book selections, and pamphlets), documents (e.g., tables, graphs, forms, schedules from everyday life), and quantitative materials (e.g., printed materials with embedded numbers). The tasks ranged from very easy (writing one's name on a Social Security card) to very difficult (writing a brief paragraph summarizing the results of a complex survey).

The results of the survey are reported using three scales: a prose scale, a document scale, and a quantitative scale. Each scale is divided into five levels which reflect a shift in task difficulty.

The study's most startling finding was that nearly half of American adults demonstrated skills in the two lowest levels. Irwin Kirsch, principal author of the study, stated that people in Levels 1 and 2 "should be the focus of literacy efforts across the country."

But, are these people illiterate? No, according to the report. The majority of them could perform simple tasks on "brief and uncomplicated texts and documents" (p.xiv). The most intriguing question is this: Just what is it that Level 1 people (21-23% of the population) and Level 2 people (another 25-28%) could not do that Level 3 people could? What follows is my answer to this question based on my analysis of the sample tasks and the task descriptions provided in the report.

When reading prose, people in Levels 1 and 2 can...

They cannot...

When reading documents, they can...

They cannot...

When reading printed information that requires arithmetic operations, they can...

They cannot...

The following findings are particularly significant for those who are involved in various types of adult literacy.

The good news: "The performance of adults with GED® certificates was nearly identical to that of adults with high school diplomas" (p. 27).

The bad news: "Between 16 and 20 percent of adults with high school diplomas performed in Level 1, and between 33 and 38 percent performed in Level 2" (p. 27). That's a total of 49 to 58 percent of high school graduates who performed at Levels 1 and 2!

Correctional Education
No surprises here. "The prison population performed significantly worse than the total population on each of the literacy scales" (p. 50).

Family Literacy
As one would expect, adults whose parents completed more years of schooling demonstrated higher literacy skills than those whose parents had a limited education.

Twenty-five percent of the participants who performed in Level 1 were immigrants who may have been learning to speak English.

Working with Beginning Literacy
Who are the people in Level 1? They are immigrants (25%). They are people over age 65 (33%). They are people with handicapping physical, mental, or health conditions (26%). Level 1 people live in poverty (41-44%). More than half of them are out of the labor force. That is, they are neither employed nor looking for work. On the other hand, it is important to note that about 30% of them are employed full-time.

Literacy Awareness
Much is being made of the finding that people in Levels 1 and 2 seemed unaware that they had limited literacy skills. When asked how well they read English, only 29% of the 40 to 44 million adults who performed in Level 1 on the prose scale said they did not read English well. The report concludes that "the overwhelming majority of adults who demonstrated low levels of literacy did not perceive that they had a problem" (p. 20). However, one wonders whether other factors may have influenced this response. For example, could participants have been too embarrassed to say that they didn't read well? Is it possible that people were keying in on the word English? Note the possible difference in connotation of these two questions:

"How well do you read?"
"How well do you read English?"

And, we know that reading "well" depends on what we are reading. Many of us read some things well and other things not so well.

We encourage you to read this important report and to communicate its major findings to your staff, your boards, and your local community.

  • ADULT LITERACY in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey by Irwin S. Kirsch, Ann Jungeblut, Lynn Jenkins, and Andrew Kolstad, Educational Testing Service, 1993.

    To order the report, call the U.S. Government Printing Office Order Desk at 202-783-3238. The GPO stock number for this book is 065-000-00588-3 and the price is $12.00.

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