Athens, Ga. – A high level of literacy in both print and digital media is required for negotiating most aspects of 21st century life-supporting a family, education, health, civic participation and competitiveness in the global economy. Yet a recent survey estimates that more than 90 million adults in the U.S. lack the literacy skills for a fully productive and secure life.
Furthermore, only 38 percent of U.S. 12th graders are at or above proficiency in reading, according to a new National Academy of Sciences report in which University of Georgia College of Education Associate Dean and Distinguished Research Professor Noel Gregg recently collaborated.
The report, titled Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research, synthesizes the research on literacy and learning, and recommends a more systemic approach to research, practice and policy.
“The report looks at strategies, including use of technology, that will best help adults improve their literacy,” said Gregg. “However, the bigger picture is the issue of literacy in relation to the economic and health crises in the U.S. today.”
Only 4 percent of high school graduates who go no further in their schooling are proficient in prose literacy, and 53 percent are at or below basic level, according to the report. Among those with a two-year degree, only 19 percent have proficient prose literacy; 56 percent show intermediate skill; and 24 percent are at basic or below basic level. This level of literacy may have been sufficient earlier in the nation’s history, but it is unlikely to be adequate today, the report stated.
“Civic participation requires citizens to understand complex matters about which they need to make decisions and on which societal well-being depends,” said Gregg. “Although people may 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 health when their literacy is low. Adults with low literacy are much less likely to read to their children or have reading materials in the home, and they have much more limited access to health-related information and have lower health literacy, according to the report. Many U.S. adults lack health literacy or the ability to read and follow the kinds of instructions routinely given for self-care or to family caregivers after medical procedures or hospital stays.
Adults with low literacy also have lower participation in the labor force and lower earnings. Studies show that lifetime net tax contributions increase as education level increases. It is reasonable to assume that gains in literacy that allow increase in educational attainment would lead to a higher standard of living and the ability of more people to contribute to such costs of society as public safety and educating future generations, the report stated.
Employers stress that employees need higher levels of basic literacy in the workplace than they currently possess and that the global economy calls for increasingly complex forms of literacy skill in this information age.
So, what can be done to improve adult literacy? There is a surprising lack of rigorous research on effective approaches to adult literacy instruction, according to the report. But research with younger populations can guide the development of instructional approaches for adults if it is modified to account for two major differences in the groups.
One is that adults may experience age-related neurocognitive declines that affect reading and writing processes and speed of learning. The second is that adults bring varied life experiences, knowledge and motivations for learning that need attention in the design of literacy instruction for them.
The report indicated that literacy is a complex skill that requires thousands of hours of practice, but many adults do not persist in adult literacy instruction long enough or have enough time to practice outside the instructional setting to reach their goals. The problem of high attrition needs to be resolved for adults to receive sufficient practice and instruction.
“Technologies for learning have the potential to help resolve problems of insufficient practice caused by time and space constraints. Technologies also can assist with multiple aspects of teaching, assessment and accommodations for learning,” said Gregg.
The population of adult literacy learners is heterogeneous. Consequently, optimal literacy instruction needs to vary according to adults’ goals, motivations, knowledge, assessed skills, interests, neurocognitive profiles and language background, the report stated.
The effort to improve adult literacy will require strong leadership from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor. Given the scope of the problem, partnerships need to be developed between researchers, curriculum developers and administrators across the systems that serve adult learners. It also will be important to enlist business leaders and faith-based and other community groups in the effort, the report stated.
The National Research Council, an arm of the NAS, published the report. Gregg was the only Georgia representative on the NRC committee of more than a dozen members with a diverse range of expertise and perspectives.
The NAS is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars across the nation engaged in scientific and engineering research. The U.S. Congress created it in 1863 to provide independent advice to the government on matters related to science and technology.
To view the full report, see www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13242.