In an age where ordinary people air their dirty laundry before an audience of millions on daytime talk shows, over one-fifth of American adults—between 41 and 44 million people—harbor a secret they consider so shameful that many do not even tell their immediate families. They cannot read or write well enough to fill out a job application form, understand the directions on a drug prescription, or read a map.
The reasons for adult non-literacy are varied and all too familiar: many drop out of school for reasons that include teen pregnancy, gangs, drugs or family instability. Some have undiagnosed learning disabilities or attended under-staffed and under-funded schools that simply could not address their needs.
Whatever the cause, adults with limited literacy skills are at more of a disadvantage than ever in our information-rich society—and only a small fraction work up the courage to seek help. “There’s an incredible stigma associated with not reading in a society that now values literacy very highly,” said Gary Rice, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “In the old technology, adult nonreaders could make a living by the sweat of their brows and the muscles on their backs. But in the society we have today, that’s absolutely impossible. Even the very basic entry level types of positions often require some kind of technological literacy.”
What does it mean to be literate?
Traditional definitions of literacy focused on a person’s ability to decode and comprehend words; one might be described as having a “fourth-grade reading level,” for example. More contemporary definitions of literacy assess a broad range of skills that adults use to function in society. The 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (the next survey is slated for 2002), assessed the literacy of over 26,000 adults in three different areas: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. The participants were asked to complete tasks such as finding or interpreting information in a newspaper article; using a bus schedule; or balancing a checkbook, and were ranked according to their scores in one of five levels.
But even this definition of literacy may be too narrow. The National Institute for Literacy has developed content standards for adult education that include teaching interpersonal, decision-making, and lifelong learning skills as well as reading and mathematical proficiency. “You can’t just look at a score, and say that a person is functionally illiterate,” said Mary Beth Bingman, Ph.D., Coordinator of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy at the Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee. “They may have the skills to do what they want to do in their lives. In that case, they are functional, they are literate.”
The consequences of low literacy
For those adults who lack the literacy skills to function in society, the burden is heavy. According to the NALS survey, nearly half of all adults in the lowest level on each literacy scale were living in poverty, compared with only four to eight percent of those in the two highest literacy levels. They were less likely to be employed, and those who were employed earned significantly less than adults who scored higher on the literacy scale. Not surprisingly, the prisoners surveyed were found to score significantly lower on the literacy scale than the general population. About 70 percent of prisoners landed in the bottom two literacy levels.
With a healthcare system that demands increasingly active participation of patients, it’s no wonder that the health of adults with low literacy—and often their children—suffers as well. Those who scored lowest on the NALS survey, said Joanne Schwartzberg, M.D., Program manager of Health Literacy at the AMA foundation, were twice as likely to report that they were in poor health and to be hospitalized than the rest of the population. Once in the hospital, they remained longer and experienced more complications.
Low literacy, according to Manuel A. González, Ed.D., Associate Dean for the Center for Adult Literacy and Basic Workforce Development at the Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is “a big cost in the workplace. There is a higher level of mistakes and injury in the workplace with folks who have lower literacy. I’m amazed when I go to companies where the entry level jobs that pay six to eight dollars an hour require the workers to enter information into a PC. And they can’t do that, because they can’t read the screen.”
What’s most disturbing about adult non-literacy is its legacy. “There’s a lineage of illiteracy,” said Rice. There is a strong correlation between a child’s educational achievement and that of the parents’—especially the mother’s—educational achievement. You can unravel this thing all the way back.” The key to improving childhood literacy, they argue, may be improving adult literacy.