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National Institute for Literacy
Undated. Added August, 2003

Literacy in the United States


Overview

The NIFL Literacy Fact Sheets include facts and statistics pulled from more than 50 research studies. (Links to digests of some of the major studies are included on the left.) Facts are organized by the major topic areas in the field of literacy on the Web pages hyperlinked above and represent the types of information to be found. The facts listed below are from the most commonly referenced literacy-related studies. New subject area fact sheets will be added through 2002.

Scope of the Literacy Need

In 1992, the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), found the following distribution of adults, age 16 and over, in the prose literacy scale:

  • 23% of adults were in Level 1;
  • 27% in Level 2;
  • 32% in Level 3;
  • 17% in Level 4; and
  • 3% in Level 5.
    (Kirsch, p17)

In the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) assessment, 1994-98:

  • The average composite literacy score of native-born adults in the U.S. was 284 (Level 3); the U.S. ranked 10th out of 17 high-income countries;
  • The average composite literacy score of foreign-born adults in the U.S. was 210 (Level 1); the U.S. ranked 16th out of 17 countries.
    (Sum, 2002, p21, Table 12)

In the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) assessment, 1994-98:

  • The mean prose literacy scores of U.S. adults with primary or no education, ranked 14th out of 18 high-income countries;
  • The mean prose literacy scores of U.S. adults with some high school, but no diploma or GED, ranked 19th out of 19 high-income countries;
  • The mean prose literacy scores of U.S. adults with a high school diploma or GED (but no college), ranked 18th (tie) out of 19 countries;
  • The mean prose literacy scores of U.S. adults with 1-3 years of college, ranked 15th out of 19 countries; and
  • The mean prose literacy scores of U.S. adults with a bachelor's degree or higher, ranked 5th.
    (Sum, 2002, p19, Table 11)

Reading

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study assessed children's reading skills as they entered kindergarten in the fall of 1998, kindergarten in the spring of 1999, and first grade in spring 2000. They found that at the start of kindergarten in the fall:

  • 67% had letter recognition skills; this increased to 95% of children in the spring of their kindergarten year, and 100% by the spring of their first grade year,
  • 31% could understand the letter-sound relationship at the beginning of words, this increased to 74% of children in the spring of their kindergarten year, and 98% by the spring of their first grade year,
  • 18% could understand the letter-sound relationship at the end of words; this increased to 54% of children in the spring of their kindergarten year, and 94% by the spring of their first grade year,
  • 3% had sight-word recognition skills; this increased to 14% of children in the spring of their kindergarten year, and 83% by the spring of their first grade year, and
  • 1% could understand words in context; this increased to 4% of children in the spring of their kindergarten year, and 48% by the spring of their first grade year.
    (Denton, p11, Figure 1)

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The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2000 national reading assessment of fourth-grade students found that reading for fun had a positive relationship to performance on the NAEP reading scores. The 87% of students who reported reading for fun on their own time once a month or more performed at the Proficient level, while students who never or hardly ever read for fun performed at the Basic level. Students who read for fun every day scored the highest.
(Donahue, p55, Table 3.5)

The 2000 Program for International Student Assessment found that on a combined reading literacy scale, U.S. 15 year olds performed about as well on average as most of the 27 participating OECD countries.

  • Students in Finland, Canada, and New Zealand outperformed U.S. students.
  • U.S. students performed at the same levels as students in 19 other OECD countries.
  • U.S. students performed better on average than students from Greece, Portugal, Luxembourg, and Portugal.
    (NCES, 2002, p4)

According to the 1999 National Household Education Survey, 50% of the population aged 25 and over read a newspaper at least once a week, read one or more magazines regularly, and had read a book in the past 6 months.
(Wirt, p132, Table 15-1)

Parental Involvement

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found the following for kindergartners in the fall of 1998:

  • 46% of parents read to their children every day.
    (Coley, p55, Figure 31)
  • 62% of parents with a high socioeconomic status read to their children every day, compared to
  • 36% of parents with a low socioeconomic status.
    (Coley, p56, Figure 32)

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found that of the children who were read to at least three times a week as they entered kindergarten:

  • 76% had mastered the letter-sound relationship at the beginning of words, compared to 64% of children who were read to fewer than 3 times a week,
  • 57% had mastered the letter-sound relationship at the end of words, compared to 43% who were read to fewer than 3 times a week,
  • 15% had sight-word recognition skills, compared to 8% who were read to fewer than 3 times a week, and
  • 5% could understand words in context, compared to 2% who were read to fewer than 3 times a week.
    (Denton, p20, Figure 7)

It also found that in spring 2000, the children who were read to at least three times a week by a family member were almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading than children who were read to less than 3 times a week.
(Denton, p16)

Family Environment and Family Literacy

A literacy promotion study, conducted in 1996 in a primary care setting with low-income Hispanic parents of healthy 5-11 month old infants found:

  • The odds of parents reading to their child three or more days a week were 10 times greater in the intervention families than the control families.
  • Parents in the intervention were six times more likely than were control parents to report that one of their three favorite activities with their child was reading books.
    (Golova, p996)

The National Evaluation of The Even Start Family Literacy Program conducted in 1996-97 found the following reasons for participating in the program:

  • 56% for the adult education component;
  • 19% for early childhood education,
  • 14% for parenting education, and
  • 11% for parent self improvement.
    (Tao, p56, Exhibit 3.21)

Literacy and Health

The NALS found that the relationship between adults' health conditions and their literacy skills varies depending on the condition. Adults with conditions such as hearing difficulty, a speech disability, a learning disability, or mental retardation usually have Level 1 skills. Adults with other conditions usually have Level 2 skills.
(Kirsch, p44)

In a 1993-94 study conducted at two public hospitals, 23.6% of patients with inadequate functional health literacy did not know how to take medication four times a day compared to 9.4% with marginal functional health literacy, and 4.5% with adequate functional health literacy.
(Williams, p1680)

Workforce Education

A number of national and state organizations in the U.S., including the National Governor's Association, have identified Level 3 proficiency as a minimum standard for success in today's labor market. Findings from the IALS assessment indicate that only half of the U.S. adult population 16-65 years of age reached Level 3.
(Sum, 2002, p11, Table 5)

The 2001 American Management Association Survey on Workplace Testing found the following:

  • 34.1% of applicants tested by respondent firms lacked the basic skills necessary to perform the jobs they sought in 2000.
  • 84.6% of the respondent firms did not hire skill-deficient applicants,
  • 3.5% hired skill deficient applicants and assigned them to obligatory remedial training,
  • 3% hired them and offered voluntary remedial training, and
  • 8.2% took other action.
    (American Management Association, p1)

The National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce found that productivity increases in the manufacturing sector for each of the following factors:

  • A 10% increase in the average education of all workers* is associated with an increase of 8.6% in productivity,
  • A 10% increase in hours worked results in an increase of 5.6% in productivity,
  • And a 10% increase in capital stock results in an increase of 3.4% productivity.
    (National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce, p2)
*Equivalent to slightly more than one additional year of schooling.

A comparison of the literary requirements of projected high-growth occupations in 2005 (for example math, computer, and other natural scientists), with declining occupations (such as fabricators, assemblers, and inspectors), found the following:

  • the weighted mean proficiency requirement for new jobs in projected high-growth occupations is 301 (Level 3);
  • the weighted mean proficiency for lost jobs in declining occupations is 252 (Level 2)
    (Sum, 1999, p94, Table 3.14)

English as a Second Language Literacy

In 2000, 28.4 million foreign born resided in the United States, representing 10.4% of the total U.S. population.
(Lollock, p1)

ESL programs are the fastest growing component of the state-administered adult education programs. In 1997-98, 48% of enrollments were in ESL programs, compared to 33% in 1993-94. Of these 48% enrollees, 32% were in beginning ESL classes, 12% in intermediate, and 4% in advanced.
(U.S. Department of Education, OVAE, p2
U.S. Department of Education, OVAE
, p5
)

The National Household Education Survey, 1994-95, found that for adults aged 16 or over whose primary language at home was not English:

  • 41.9% participated in ESL classes in the last 12 months as part of a college program,
  • 28.9% participated to improve their communication skills,
  • 14.1% for personal, family, or a social reason, and
  • 15.1% for other main reasons.
    (Kwang, p15, Table 2)

Correctional Population

In 1992, about one in three prison inmates performed at Level 1 on the NALS prose scale, compared with one in five of the household population.
(Haigler, p20)

The Three State Recidivism Study found that the re-arrest, reconviction, and re-incarceration rates were lower for the prison population who had participated in correctional education compared to non-participants. The differences were significant in every category. The findings were:

  • the re-arrest rates of correctional education participants were 48%, compared to 57% for the non-participants;
  • re-conviction rates were 27% for correctional educational participants, compared to 35% for non-participants; and
  • re-incarceration rates were 21%, compared to 31% for non-participants.
    (Steurer, p40, Figure 1)

Literacy, Personal Economics, and Welfare

In the 1992 NALS,

  • 31% of welfare women had minimal skills (similar to high school dropouts/NALS Level 1), compared to 13% of non-welfare women;
  • 37% had basic skills (similar to below average high school graduates/NALS Level 2), compared to 25% of non-welfare women;
  • 25% had competent skills (similar to people with some postsecondary education/NALS Level 3), compared to 37% of non-welfare women; and
  • 7% had advanced/superior skills (similar to people with a bachelor's degree or more/NALS Level 4/5), compared to 25% of non-welfare women.
    (Carnevale, p12, Figure 3)

It could take

  • 900 hours of education and training for minimally (similar to high school dropouts/NALS Level 1) skilled welfare women to move up to the basic level (similar to below average high school graduates /NALS Level 2);
  • 200 hours of education and training for basic skilled recipients to move up to the competent level (similar to people with some postsecondary education/NALS Level 3); and
  • 200 hours for competent skilled welfare women to move up to advanced skill level (similar to people with a bachelor's degree or more/NALS Level 4/5).
    (Carnevale, p6, Figure 2)

In 1992, with the exception of persons without a high school diploma or GED, annual earnings rose continuously across the literacy levels. The mean annual earnings of the employed population with 9-12 years of education were:

  • $12,420 at prose literacy Level 1;
  • $9,320 at Level 2;
  • $10,360 at Level 3; and
  • $8,580 at Level 4.

The mean annual earnings of the employed population with a high-school diploma were:

  • $14,570 at prose literacy Level 1;
  • $15,880 at Level 2;
  • $17,530 at Level 3; and
  • $19,300 at Level 4.

The mean annual earnings of the employed population with some postsecondary education were:

  • $17,120 at prose literacy Level 1;
  • $17,580 at Level 2;
  • $19,670 at Level 3;
  • $21,110 at Level 4; and
  • $23,020 at Level 5.
    (Sum, 1999, p124, Table 4.7)

Delivery and Investment Impact

Federal funding for the State Grants for Adult Education program was $540 million in FY2001 and $575 million in FY 2002.
(NIFL, p1)

In 1999, 2% of noninstitutionalized individuals aged 16 or older who were not enrolled in secondary education participated in adult basic education programs, compared to 1% in 1995.
(Creighton, p.24, Figure 8)

In 1999, for noninstitutionalized adults, aged 16 or older, who had participated in an adult basic education program:

  • 8% had less than a high school education;
  • 2% had a high school diploma/GED;
  • 1% had some college education; and
  • less than 1% had a bachelor's degree of higher.
    (Creighton, p.26, Figure 9)

Laubach Literacy is the largest volunteer-based literacy organization in the United States. Laubach Literacy's total expenses in the fiscal year ending, May 31, 2001, were $10,582,714:

  • 56.1% of the expenditure was on U.S. education and training materials;
  • 21.1% on U.S. program and public education;
  • 8.4% on general and administrative services;
  • 7.5% was on fund raising and planned giving; and
  • 6.9% on international programs.
    (Laubach Literacy International, p13)

Teaching ABE or basic skills training has become a common program in many community colleges. In 2000, a 50-state survey of community college funding found six primary sources of funding for adult basic education:

  • 40% received K12/state department of education funding;
  • 17% received workforce development funding;
  • 10% received state and federal funds;
  • 7% received federal funding only;
  • 5% received state funds through the general funding formula; and
  • 21% received funding from other sources.
    (Center for Community College Policy, p39, Chart 4)

This document is not necessarily endorsed by the Almanac of Policy Issues. It is being preserved  in the Policy Archive for historic reasons.

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