Little Progress on Adult Literacy

A recently released reports says 14 percent of adults lack basic reading skills.

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One in seven adults lacks the literacy skills required to read anything more complex than a children's book, a staggering statistic that has not improved in more than 10 years, according to a federal study released last week.

The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy surveyed more than 18,500 Americans ages 16 and older and found about 14 percent could not read, could not understand text written in English, or could comprehend only basic, simple text. This study's predecessor, 1992's National Adult Literacy Survey, also found that about 14 percent of the 24,000 adults interviewed lacked moderate or advanced literacy skills. Because the overall population of the United States has grown by about 23 million adults, the number of adults with low literacy skills has grown by 3.6 million since 1992.

Unlike the earlier survey, the recently released study breaks down rates of literacy by state and even by county. Some states made significant progress in reducing their number of adult residents with low literacy skills. The number of adults with basic to no literacy skills in Alabama, for example, dropped from 21 percent in 1992 to 15 percent in 2003. But in several large states, including California, New York, Florida, and Nevada, the number of adults with low literacy skills rose, according to USA Today.

Another study released last week identifies the skills and types of instruction most effective in helping children up to age 5 develop a capacity to read. This knowledge, if attained at a young age, would reduce the number of illiterate adults in the future. The Report of the National Early Literacy Panel identifies skills like knowledge of the alphabet, ability to sound out certain parts of words, and ability to write one's own name as crucial indicators of a child's ability to master literacy later. The study (whose conclusions are based on a summary of leading early childhood education research) also found that reading books to children and enrolling them in preschool and kindergarten improve young children's language development.

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