Statistics from the
What is the
National Adult Literacy Survey?
The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) is a comprehensive study
of adult literacy conducted in 1992 by the Educational Testing Service on
behalf of the U.S. Department of Education. The study measured the English
literacy skills of a random sample of over 26,000 individuals in the
United States aged 16 years and older.
How was the
The study was conducted in three parts:
In the study, participants were interviewed and asked to respond to
a series of commonly encountered literacy tasks such as reading a bus
schedule, using an automatic teller machine, or understanding a judge’s
instructions to a jury. Each participant received proficiency scores in
three different areas: prose, document, and quantitative literacy. The
results in each area were divided into five levels, with those at Level 1
being least proficient and those at Level 5 being most proficient.
What are the
findings of the study?
The study found that between 21% and 23% of American adults are
functioning at the lowest level. This is approximately 40 to 44 million
people. At most, people at Level 1 are able to perform tasks involving
“brief, uncomplicated text,” such as totaling the entry on a bank
deposit slip or locating information in a short news article, but many do
so with difficulty. Others are unable to do so at all.
An additional 25 to 28% of the participants, representing 50
million American adults, are functioning at the Level 2. Those at this
level have skills that the Department of Education describes as “more
varied” than those at Level 1 but “still quite limited.” They are
able to locate information in a text, locate a particular intersection on
a map, or determine the difference in price of two items. However, they
have “considerable difficulty” carrying out tasks requiring them to
use long texts or do 2-step calculations.
Interestingly, many respondents at Levels 1 and 2 did not consider
themselves “at risk” because of their literacy skills. A majority of
those at Level 1 and almost all those at Level 2 described themselves as
being able to read English “well” or “very well.”
Approximately 33% of the participants, representing 61 million
adults, had Level 3 skills. They could integrate information relatively
easily from long texts, and perform more complicated tasks where
quantities needed to be inferred from the narrative.
18 to 21% of the respondents, representing 34 to 40 million adults,
performed at Levels 4 or 5. At these levels participants could
successfully complete the most challenging tasks requiring the use of long
and complex texts.
are most at risk of having the lowest level literacy skills?
Not surprisingly, those with the fewest years of education and
those who are new to the United States were most likely to have limited
literacy skills. 25% of the respondents at Level 1 were immigrants, and
62% had ended school before completing high school. A third were aged 65
or older, and 26% had physical or mental health conditions that prevented
them from fully participating in everyday life. 19% reported that they had
Respondents in Level 1 were more likely than those scoring at
higher levels to have low incomes and fewer annual weeks of employment.
Median income for those at Level 1 was about $240 per week, compared with
approximately $650 for those at Level 5. Those at Level 1 reported an
average of 18 to 19 weeks of employment in the previous year, while those
at the three highest levels reported between 34 and 44 weeks of
employment. Almost 44% of those at Level 1 were living below the poverty
Of those at Level 1, almost 58% of the eligible voters reported
voting in a recent state or national election, compared to 80% of those at
Level 4 and 90% of those at Level 5.
What is the
significance of the NALS report?
The NALS report does not yield an absolute number of Americans who
can be termed “illiterate.” Rather, it is the first major scientific
study to provide a picture of the abilities of American adults to use
printed material to accomplish day-to-day tasks. The survey found that a
very large number of people have significantly limited abilities, although
many of these same people said they felt they could read “well.”
The study also documents the correlation between limited literacy
skills, limited economic opportunity, and limited participation in
sociopolitical decisions. The NALS report says “literacy can be thought
of as a currency in this society. Just as adults with little money have
difficulty meeting their basic needs, those with limited literacy skills
are going to find it more challenging to pursue their goals.”
The Department of Education released further reports on selected sub-groups thru June 1994. These include reports from the individual twelve states, and reports on prison literacy, literacy and the labor force, literacy and schooling, literacy and older adults, literacy and ethnicity, and literacy and political participation. For further information on these reports and their release dates, contact the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research & Improvement, 555 New Jersey Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20208-5641. Call (800)424-1616 or (202)219-1651. A full copy of the NALS report, entitled Adult Literacy in America, is available for approximately $12 from the U.S. Government Printing Office. Order publication # 065-000-00588-3. Call (202)512-8000. Web address: www.access.gpo.gov.
American Literacy Council, 230 S. 39th Street, Boulder, CO 80305