adults living in households and 1,200 prison inmates.1 Adults were categorized as having proficient, intermediate, basic, or below basic levels of literacy.
According to the survey, 43 percent of U.S. adults (an estimated 56 million people) possess only basic or below basic prose literacy skills. Only 13 percent had proficient prose literacy. Results were similar for document literacy: 34 percent of adults had basic or below basic document literacy and only 13 percent were proficient. A comparison of the results with findings from the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) shows that little progress was made between 1992 and 2003 (see Table 1-1).
Table 1-2 shows the percentage and number of adults in each race/ ethnicity category in the 2003 NAAL survey with below basic and basic literacy. Certain groups in the 2003 NAAL survey were more likely to perform at the below basic level: those who did not speak English before entering school, Hispanic adults, those who reported having multiple disabilities, and black adults. The 7 million adults with the lowest levels of skill showed difficulties with reading letters and words and comprehending a simple text (Baer, Kutner, and Sabatini, 2009) (see Table 1-3).
Although literacy increases with educational attainment (see Table 1-4), only 4 percent of high school graduates who do not go further in their schooling are proficient in prose literacy, according to the NAAL; 53 percent are at the basic or below basic level. Among those with a 2-year degree, only 19 percent have proficient prose literacy, 56 percent show intermediate skill, and 24 percent are at basic or below basic levels. This level of literacy might have been sufficient earlier in the nation’s history, but it is likely to be inadequate today (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2005). For U.S. society to continue to function and sustain its standard of living, higher literacy levels are required of the U.S. population in the 21st century for economic security and all other aspects of daily life: education, health, parenting, social interaction, personal growth, and civic participation.
Civic participation requires citizens to understand the complex matters about which they need to make decisions and on which societal well-being depends. Although people might legitimately differ in their beliefs about what health care policy the country should have, national surveys show that too many people lack the literacy needed to engage in that discussion. Parents cannot further their children’s education or ensure their children’s
1Prose literacy was defined as the ability to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts. Prose examples include editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials. Document literacy was defined as the ability to search, comprehend, and use information from noncontinuous texts. Document examples include job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and drug and food labels. The survey also assessed quantitative literacy.