[AAACE-NLA] What literacy problem?
jons at lacnyc.org
Tue Apr 10 11:14:31 EDT 2007
Perhaps the figures on limited literacy and employment don't agree at
least in part because they are measuring two different groups. "[T]here
is a fundamental difference between unemployment and joblessness," notes
David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society in New
York City. "The former entails those individuals, available for and
actively seeking work during the survey period. The latter comprise all
those who are not employed. And it is joblessness that still haunts
youth and Black and Hispanic men in New York City."
A February 2007 CSS report, "Unemployment and Joblessness in New York
City, 2006" concludes that among all residents age 16 and older, 43.6
percent of the population was out of the workforce, even though the
official unemployment rate was only 2.9 percent in 2006. That official
rate included an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent among residents
without a high school degree-nearly triple the 2.2 percent unemployment
rate for New Yorkers with a bachelor degree or higher.
What proportion of the more than four out of ten adults who are out of
the workforce have given up looking for a job because the combination of
their color and limited literacy skills makes it highly unlikely they
will find one? We don't know. That would certainly be a useful subject
for government researchers to investigate.
From: aaace-nla-bounces at lists.literacytent.org
[mailto:aaace-nla-bounces at lists.literacytent.org] On Behalf Of
tsticht at znet.com
Sent: Monday, April 09, 2007 7:25 PM
To: aaace-nla at lists.literacytent.org
Subject: [AAACE-NLA] What literacy problem?
April 9, 2007
Who Believes America has an Adult Literacy Problem?
International Consultant in Adult Education
"The NAAL, the first assessment of adult English reading and writing
in the U.S. since 1992, estimated that 30 million people over age 16 are
barely able to read and write."
Robert Wedgeworth, president and CEO of ProLiteracy Worldwide
This statement by the head of the largest organization of adult basic
education and literacy in the world occurs in the midst of a longer
calling for increased funding for the Adult Education and Literacy
(AELS) of the U. S. so it can serve more than the 3 million or so adults
that it presently serves. Yet in the past, when similar pleas have been
made for increases in adult literacy funding, in the wake of surveys
showing 30 to 40 million adults with low literacy skills, the President
the Congress have responded with either no or very little increases in
literacy education resources.
Why is this so? Is it possible that neither government officials or any
else for that matter, actually believes what the National Assessment of
Adult Literacy (NAAL) or its predecessor, the National Adult Literacy
Survey (NALS) reports about the literacy skills of America's adults?
The latest report on adult literacy in the United States, entitled
in Everyday Life (LEL) (Kutner et. al, 2007), once again reports the
litany of social problems that have been shown to be correlated with low
cognitive skills, including low literacy, for almost a century. Adults
lower literacy skills tend to be in the lower socioeconomic classes, to
in minority ethnic groups, to not be native English language speakers,
are more likely to be unemployed or to hold low wage jobs, are less
to vote or participate in other civic and community activities, are less
likely to read to their children a lot, and more likely to be on welfare
other forms of public assistance (see Sticht & Armstrong, 1994 for an
historical review of adult literacy assessments from 1917 to the
The LEL report presents data from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult
Literacy (NAAL) which measured literacy using three literacy scales:
Document, and Quantitative and reported results in four major categories
skills: Below Basic (the lowest level), Basic, Intermediate and
Another category, those non-proficient in English or Spanish could not
the test, and made up about 2 percent (4 million) adults. Some 14
of adults were in the Below Basic category for Prose literacy and 12
percent for the Document literacy scale. The Quantitative scale had
22 percent in the Below Basic category.
But does being in the lowest level of literacy, the Below Basic level,
indicate that these adults can "barely read and write?" According to the
LEL report, being placed in the Below Basic level "indicates no more
the most simple and concrete literacy skills. ... Adults at the Below
level range from being nonliterate in English to having the abilities
olocating easily identifiable information in short, commonplace prose
olocating easily identifiable information and following written
simple documents (e.g., charts or forms) [Document scale]
olocating numbers and using them to perform simple quantitative
(primarily addition) when the mathematical information is very concrete
familiar." [Quantitative scale]
The foregoing indicate that adults in the Below Basic level of literacy
in fact, be able to read and write with some real degree of skill above
ability to "barely read and write." One suggestion that adults in the
Below Basic literacy level have some degree of functional literacy was
finding that only around a third (34-35 percent) of adults with Below
Prose and Document skills thought their reading skills limited their job
opportunities "a lot." Another third (33-35 percent) thought that their
reading skills limited them "some" or "a little" and a final third
percent) of these adults reported that their reading skills limited
job opportunities "not at all." So two-thirds of adults categorized as
possessing Below Basic literacy skills did not seem to perceive
as very limited in their job opportunities due to their poor reading
Why don't these adults in the Below Basic category of Prose and Document
literacy, the lowest level, perceive themselves as limited in their job
opportunities? There is no information explicitly given in the LEL
about this. However, there are some data in the report that may be
to addressing this issue.
The LEL report states that the correlations among Prose, Document, and
Quantitative scales were between +.86 and +.89 out of a perfect
of +1.00. This indicates that all three scales placed people in roughly
same rank orders. This means that those who scored poorly on the Prose
scale were likely to be low on both the Document and Quantitative
those in the middle range of the Prose scale would be in the middle of
ranges of the Document and Quantitative scales, and those with the
Prose scores would also tend to have the higher Document and
This suggests that in estimating people's literacy skills we should
the sum of the Prose, Document, and Quantitative skills for any given
person. Presumably all adults have some of each sort of literacy. But
the skills are discussed, they are discussed as separate in terms of a
particular scale. But persons at the Below Basic level on Prose literacy
presumably also have Below Basic skills on both Document and
scales, too. But without adding up skills across the three scales it is
certain how to characterize these people in terms of what they can
do in the real world of literacy. They would seem to have some ability
all three domains, but exactly how these add together to form an overall
estimate of what the Below Basic adults can do with their Prose,
and Quantitative literacy combined is not clear.
It may be that the combined literacy skills across the three NAAL scales
render people more capable at getting, keeping, and progressing in a job
than a discussion of just one scale would suggest. In turn, this might
influence people's judgments about how little or how much their literacy
skills limit their job opportunities.
For policymakers in federal or state governments, low unemployment
below 5 percent, may render the results of the NAAL and the claim that
million or so adults are functionally illiterate less than critical. In
this case, the policymakers seem to be of the same mind as the adults in
the Below Basic literacy level themselves. In both groups, adult
may seem to be somewhat of a problem, but not one serious enough to
a major increase in funds for adult literacy education.
Who believes America has an adult literacy problem? If most of the
with Below Basic literacy skills themselves do not think they have much
a literacy problem, why should their governmental representatives or
else think so?
in Everyday Life: Results From the 2003 National Assessment of Adult
Literacy (NCES 2007-480). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC:
National Center for Education Statistics.
Sticht, T. G. (2001). The International Adult Literacy Survey: How Well
It Represent the Literacy of Adults?. The Canadian Journal for the Study
Adult Education, 15, 19-36.
Sticht, T. & Armstrong, W. (1994, February). Adult Literacy in the
States: A Compendium of Quantitative Data and Interpretative Comments.
Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.
Wedgeworth, R. (2007, April). ProLiteracy Worldwide's President Reacts
the NAAL Comprehensive Report. Downloaded April 9, 2007 at
Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133
Email: tsticht at aznet.net
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