Adult Literacy Defined
What is Literacy?
One of our difficulties in
determining exactly what we mean when we use the term literacy is
that our definition of literacy is always changing. People who
were once considered literate by a previous yardstick may today
suddenly find themselves considered to be lacking in literacy
skills. In fact, our attempt to define literacy has been compared
to walking toward the horizon; it forever seems just about the
same distance in front of you.
Throughout recent history, literacy
has most often been viewed in terms of the amount of educational
preparation sufficient to bring about entry-level employment.
Thus, definitions of "functional" literacy have
typically been tied to grade-level equivalents. During World War
II, for example, the average worker was expected to perform at
least at a fourth grade level. By the mid-1960's, the standard for
"functional literacy" had risen to an eighth-grade
level. Today, most new jobs already require twelve years of
education, and the 21st century will present even higher demands.
Workers are expected to master not only the basic skills of
reading, writing and math, but also possess strong skills in
listening, speaking, critical thinking, problem solving, team
building, and technology.
A common definition of literacy used
today is "the ability to read, write, and speak in
English, and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency
necessary to function on the job and in society, achieve one's
goals, and develop one's knowledge and potential." It
is important to remember, however, that the level of essential
skills needed to meet any definition of literacy will necessarily
change as the demands of the workplace, the family, and the
West Virginia have a Literacy Problem?
In West Virginia, as in most of the
United States, there exists a literacy "gap" -- the
skills of large numbers of people are not sufficient for them to
meet the functional tests of everyday life, and these tests are
becoming more complex and difficult.
This is not to suggest that a large
proportion of adults cannot read, write or do simple mathematics. West
Virginia does not have an "illiteracy" problem. In
fact, evidence from the National Adult Literacy Survey suggests
that this proportion is only about three to four percent.
Unfortunately, literacy is often portrayed as an issue in which
everyone with a literacy problem cannot read simple directions, a
road sign, or a job application. This is not true.
Estimates from the National Adult
Literacy Survey (NALS) indicate, however, that significant numbers
of Americans do face some type of literacy difficulty. NALS was
conducted in 1992 with a random sampling of 26,000 adults
nationwide. Participants were asked to respond to a series of
diverse literacy tasks related to prose, document, and
While West Virginia did not conduct a
state-specific NALS survey, the U.S. Department of Education has
created "estimates" for each state based on NALS
demographics. These estimates indicate that approximately 17
percent of West Virginia adults have significant difficulty with
literacy tasks related to everyday life and work, while an
additional 32 percent face some degree of difficulty with certain
The problem facing West Virginia is
not primarily an "illiteracy" problem but a
"literacy" gap -- a shortage of skills among very large
numbers of adults who are expected to provide the incomes to
support society, learn to live more healthy lives, raise the next
generation of productive citizens, and participate in cultural and
democratic life. Compounding the problem is that few citizens
think they need help until they lose their jobs, their children
fail in school, they cannot cope with a family breakup, or some
other tragedy befalls them.
What is the Link Between Grade Completion Level and
the Results of the National Adult Literacy (NALS) Survey?
In the past, census information on
the educational attainment level of adults in West Virginia was
used as a starting point to examine those in need of basic skills
programs. Obviously, census information does not provide a totally
accurate estimate of literacy. Some adults without a high school
diploma, for example, scored in the upper levels of NALS while 4
percent of college graduates scored in the lowest level. However,
the NALS findings did indicate that overall nearly two-thirds of
the adults who performed in the lowest literacy level had not
completed high school. Among all of the variables explored in the
survey, the level of education had the strongest
relationship with demonstrated literacy proficiency.
In 1990, 429,123 West Virginians age
25 and older had high school diplomas, In 2000, 486,334 West
Virginians in that age group were high school graduates, a 13.3
percent increase.So while educational attainment level
does not provide a totally accurate picture, it does provide a
place to start. However, it is important to remember that a high
school diploma or beyond is still no guarantee that an individual
possesses the level of literacy skills needed to keep pace with
the rising demands in today's society. Literacy is everybody's
business, and lifelong learning needs to become a way of life.
The West Virginia
Department of Education and the state's community and technical
colleges are working cooperatively to improve the literacy skills
of West Virginians.
West Virginia Department of Education
Building 6, Room 230
1900 Kanawha Blvd. E.
Charleston, WV 26501
Phone: (304) 558-0280
Fax: (304) 558-3946
ABE Hotline: 1-800-642-2670