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 society change.

Does 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 quantitative proficiencies.

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 literacy skills.

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