Search form

Tool 1: Components of Adult Literacy


"Functional literacy," the level at which people have enough reading ability to function in their lives, is often set at fifth grade, but there are problems with this assumption. First, fifth grade level means something different for an adult than it does for a child, because the adult, with more experience and a larger vocabulary, may be able to get more out of a text at that reading level. Another issue is that much of our daily reading is, in fact, at higher levels: newspapers are written at sixth to eighth grade, for instance (except for the N.Y. Times, which is higher still), and car repair manuals for mechanics are often written at as much as twelfth grade level. Yet another question here is what "functional" means, if an adult reading at fifth grade level can't help her tenth grade child with history or English homework. Thus, the level of reading that actually corresponds to "literate " is still unresolved, although various grade levels have been suggested as the standard. (In fact, it is probably unrealistic to talk about grade levels at all when referring to adults.)


When most people think of "literate" writing, they assume prose that's "correct:" no spelling errors, proper grammar. But there's a lot more to good writing than correct spelling and grammar, although those are a start. And with spell- and grammar-checking available with one computer keystroke, the whole complexion of "correctness" has changed. The key here is, once again, function: what do people need in order to get through their lives? To write a letter (or perhaps an e-mail) to a relative or friend or a child's teacher or the editor of the local paper, to fill out a check or a job application, to file an accident report... these are the kinds of tasks that most people need to be able to complete relatively easily and without embarrassment. If they want to go on to higher education, or to use their writing to inform or influence people in the larger world, they need to be able to analyze concepts and information, and to construct a logical written framework for their ideas. In all cases, the key to written communication is clarity. So perhaps the easiest way to describe written literacy is that it's the ability to write whatever is necessary in clear and reasonably accurate prose. An individual's needs determine the level at which writing becomes "functional" for him.


The word "numeracy" has been used to denote mathematical literacy. It refers to the ability to perform the basic mathematical operations - addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and whatever else -normally needed in everyday life. The reality is that most adults, even those who got A's in high school math, can't divide fractions or set up algebra problems any more, because they haven't used any of that knowledge in 20 years. They can, however, balance their checkbooks, figure out percentage discounts, calculate their gas mileage, do their taxes, make change, and determine how much that Disney World vacation will cost - the types of tasks that most people need math for.

Reading, writing, and math at all levels are generally lumped into Adult Basic Education, or ABE. Technology, particularly computer literacy (basic computer skills, such as word processing, use of e-mail and the Internet, etc.), is now starting to be considered part of ABE as well in many states.

English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL)

Immigrants (and some others - Spanish -speaking Puerto Ricans, for instance, who are American citizens) are at a disadvantage if they can't speak, understand, read, and write the majority language. ESOL instruction, which teaches these skills, is also a component of adult literacy. Adults may be literate in their own language, but that doesn't help if they don't know the language they need. This whole issue is further complicated when an immigrant's native language works very differently from English in some way - written in pictographs, for example, where each symbol represents a whole word, rather than a sound, as in Chinese - so that their native language literacy doesn't easily carry over.

Many adult immigrants, especially refugees from Third World violence or poverty, may not be literate in their own languages at all. Debate rages in the ESOL community about whether to try to teach them to read and write in English, or to first teach them in their native language (Native Language Literacy). There are fierce proponents of both philosophies, each side convinced that the other is hurting students by its approach. There is no real end to the controversy in sight, and the issue is often resolved in individual programs by the availability of resources.

Cultural literacy

To a great extent, the adult education movement in the United States began as an effort to bring cultural literacy - a basic exposure to the ideas, people, and writings that shaped western thought - to the poor and uneducated. The purpose here was both to educate the masses for their own benefit, and to integrate them into the larger American society. There are still many educators who see cultural literacy as of major importance. E.D. Hirsch, in his best seller Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), made the case that a background of common knowledge was necessary both to facilitate learning (it provides mental hooks on which to hang new knowledge and skills) and to make possible communication and common purpose among all members of an increasingly diverse society. In many states, cultural literacy is named as one of several foundation elements of adult literacy.

Virtually since the beginning of the American adult literacy movement, there has been argument over what constitutes the proper purpose and aim of the field. Three factions, often mutually hostile, have traded sway many times over the years. The first looks at adult literacy as purely an academic endeavor: the sum total of adult literacy work is teaching adults the skills they lack. The second faction touts the role of cultural literacy: people need to know how to read primarily so they can gain the general knowledge that serves as background to American life, and the teaching of that knowledge must be part of a literacy program. The third faction sees literacy as a road to social change: literacy skills provide the poor and disenfranchised with a means of making their voices heard, and of driving the political machine, rather than being run over by it.

In reality, adult literacy instruction in fact should contain all three of these elements. Certainly the skills themselves are necessary, since, without them, adults remain silenced and unable to function to their potential. The general knowledge that serves as cultural wallpaper reveals the assumptions behind much of what is written, and therefore makes it understandable (not to mention providing both intellectual enjoyment and exposure to the ideas and workings of truly original minds). A strong argument can certainly be made that if the acquisition of literacy doesn't serve to help those adults in poverty or other difficult circumstances to change their situations, it has done them no good whatsoever. It makes sense that adult literacy programs should in fact address all three of these areas.

Tool 2: Who are adult literacy learners?

Most Americans are surprised at the number of people who need adult literacy services, both nationwide and in their own area ("But we don't have anyone like that here " is a quote I've heard hundreds of times, often in towns where 30 or 40% of adult residents lack high school diplomas). If they think of adult literacy learners at all, they often picture either the poorest of the poor - the homeless, sharecroppers living in falling-down one-room shacks in the rural South, or urban children with rats running across their beds - or people who are somehow inferior, who just don't try hard enough. In fact, learners in literacy programs have a broad range of abilities, interests, backgrounds, and economic situations.

While it's almost impossible to characterize "the adult learner," there are some characteristics that are common to many learners in adult literacy programs:

  • They are often low-income. The lack of skills, while not a barrier for some, acts for most people to limit their employment possibilities. Although they are certainly represented on the welfare rolls, adult literacy learners are most often the "working poor," people who work long hours at (often two or more) low-paying jobs, and still struggle to stay above water financially.
  • All circumstances being equal, they are somewhat more likely to be female than male. Women seem to find it easier to admit that they need help than men do. They are also slightly less likely to work full time, and therefore to have more time to attend classes. (This last is often offset by the fact that many are single mothers of small children, and therefore need day care in order to participate.)
  • Many have learning disabilities which make reading, writing, or math difficult for them. Although the question of just how much of adults' difficulty with basic skills is due to learning disabilities is controversial, no one would deny that a significant number of those in adult literacy programs have neurological, visual, or other specific problems that complicate their learning process.
  • A large number - a majority in some areas, particularly parts of the Northeast and the Southwest - are non-English speakers enrolled in ESOL classes.
  • Relatively few are under 25. It is notoriously difficult to attract young high school dropouts to programs. They have just left school, after all, and usually don't want anything to do with it again. In addition, many are working, have their own money for the first time, and think they're doing just fine. They can't see how difficult life will be in a few years on seven or eight dollars an hour.
  • They come with a broad range of skills. There are relatively few actual non-readers in American society, although most literacy programs see some. There are many, however, who read at fourth or fifth grade level, and thus may have difficulty completing employment applications, understanding ballot questions, or helping their children with homework. There are many others, particularly those seeking a GED or other high school credential, who have very good reading, writing, and math skills.
  • Their range of ability is probably very similar to that of the general population. It is easy to think of those with poor skills as stupid, but in fact, as in the population as a whole, most are average. A few are quite a bit above average, a few below. But, as a group, they present themselves very much like any other group of people.
  • Regardless of their ability or intelligence, they tend to think of themselves as stupid. Even those who have been successful economically and otherwise -- many learners have good jobs, or even own their own businesses -- have still been told by teachers, family, and others that they don't measure up because of their lack of skills or lack of a diploma. For most learners, this is the most difficult barrier to overcome.

Tool 3: Myths About Adult Literacy

A note: Most of the myths that follow refer to literacy as it applies to native English speakers. Where appropriate, the experience of ESOL learners is cited as well. It is important to remember that, in many states, a sizable minority, or even a majority, of students in literacy programs are ESOL learners, and that their experience is different from that of English-language learners. They span a broader range of educational backgrounds - from none at all to professional degrees - and a broad range of cultures as well. Many are extremely poor, and at the mercy of the welfare system; others, through hard work and frugality, own homes and small businesses. The variation is such that it is virtually impossible to talk of a "typical " ESOL learner.

Myth 1: Literacy rates are in a decline.

Actually, more people can read and write better at the turn of the millennium than at any other time in history. But the literacy needs of the average person have changed drastically in the last two or three generations. At a time when the vast majority of the population earned their living with their hands and the strength of their backs, reading and writing were helpful, but not necessary. Now, when so much work, at least in the developed world,depends upon high-level technical and other complex skills, lack of basic skills is a tremendous disadvantage, and literacy needs are much greater than ever before. (Consider the simple fact that using a computer depends on being able to read, often at a high level.)

In addition, the past two decades have seen immigration to the U.S. exceeded only by that at the beginning of the twentieth century. Immigrants - Spanish speakers, for instance, including American citizens from Puerto Rico - now constitute a sizable minority in many cities in the Northeast. Many of these immigrants are, in fact, quite literate, but not in English.

Myth 2: Learners in adult literacy programs all start out as non-readers.

In a comprehensive adult literacy program, learners start at many different levels. Very few, in fact, can't read at all. Many start out reading at or below fourth or fifth grade level, meaning that they can read signs and simple prose, but can't easily read newspapers, magazines, or novels. Other learners are primarily pursuing a high school credential (a GED or other form of adult diploma), and may have quite sophisticated skills. Still others read and write well, but need to learn basic math skills in order to advance - or to stay - in their jobs. In ESOL programs, some learners may even have advanced degrees from respected universities, but in languages other than English; others may be totally illiterate, or only barely literate, in their own languages as well as in English.

Myth 3: Most adult literacy learners are dyslexic.

Dyslexia is a word used for a complex of neurological and other factors that make it very difficult for some people to learn to read, write, and/or calculate. It accounts for only a small fraction of the learning disabilities that many adult literacy learners struggle with.

There is much disagreement in the field as to how much adult illiteracy is the result of learning disabilities. Often, adult learners have had so many negative factors in their lives - poverty, parental abuse, substance use, constant moving, abandonment, ill health, language barriers, etc. - that it is difficult to determine what role learning disabilities play. A large factor seems to be the childhood exposure to and importance placed on printed matter. Children who grow up surrounded by books, magazines, and newspapers; who are read to from an early age; who see the importance of print in their parents' work and intellectual lives; and who are themselves encouraged to read generally learn to read easily and well. Those who have the opposite experience often have difficulty with reading.

Myth 4: If you have a high school diploma, that's a guarantee of your skills.

Many high school graduates have little or no reading, writing, or math capacity. They are granted diplomas through programs that are little more than baby-sitting, or are rewarded for not making trouble for twelve years, or are smart enough to get their work done by others. Nearly 20% of the students at The Literacy Project had high school diplomas, and many of those graduates were actual or near non-readers. Remember that most dropouts are in at least ninth or tenth grade when they leave school, and often leave because of difficulties in keeping up: another two years of school may not have dramatic results.

Estimates of functional illiteracy vary tremendously, from as high as 45% of adults to (most commonly) about 20% to as low as 10%. In Massachusetts, with a total population (adults and children) of just under six million, there are nearly 900,000 adults without high school diplomas or GEDs. Based on experience, I'd estimate conservatively that half of them probably read and write at below eighth grade level; and that half of that group - nearly a quarter of a million people - probably read at below fourth grade level. And that doesn't consider either the ESOL population or those who have high school diplomas and still have literacy issues.

Myth 5: Adults who manage to grow up unable to read or write well are just plain stupid.

This is probably the most widespread and most damaging of the myths about illiteracy. As explained above, many adult literacy learners have learning disabilities that affect their ability to deal with print in the same way that missing a limb affects one's ability to play basketball. (This is almost an exact analogy, in that some people with missing limbs learn to play basketball, anyway -- but almost always using different strategies from other players, and only by dint of a huge amount of extra effort. Very much the same is true for learning disabled people who nonetheless learn to read well.) Studies continually show that dyslexics, as a group, are significantly above average in intelligence, rather than below. Furthermore, it is difficult to fault the intelligence of people who lack a basic element of the equipment necessary to navigate twentieth century life, and yet manage anyway, often quite well.

While it is true that the overwhelming majority of learners in adult literacy programs are poor, they represent, in most states, no more than five percent of the adults who could benefit from reading, writing, or math instruction. Many of the others don't sign up because they are ashamed or afraid that their experience will be humiliating. But many simply don't feel they need the service because they are doing well. They have good jobs or own businesses that support them and their families, they are good parents and model citizens, they enjoy their lives, and very few of their family, friends, and neighbors have any idea that they can't read or write or calculate well. They have learned to compensate through native intelligence, extraordinary feats of memory, and occasional white lies. Unlike the hapless heroes of movies and TV shows about illiteracy, they will probably never be "caught," and will continue to live successfully and happily with their limitation.

Myth 6: Very few adults in America have any literacy problems.

The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) commissioned by President Bush, found, in results published in 1993, that 47% of adults in the United States had difficulty with several common tasks (reading a bus schedule, deciphering a lease, figuring gas mileage, etc.) that most people would expect the average adult to be able to perform. Furthermore, the worse their skills were, the less they felt they had a problem.