More on adult literacy in the USA

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Sat Apr 19 20:58:47 UTC 2008

Note the following, seemingly most reliable, statistics, which indicate that 
22%--not 50%!--of Americans in 2003 were marginally illiterate ("possess no 
more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills"). This appears to be 
little different from the 1880s (see my previous posting) and may even be an 
improvement, since total illiteracy and possessing "the most simple and concrete 
literacy skills" are not be the same thing. Note also that Canada and Bermuda 
both outperformed the US, despite using virtually the same spelling system, 
while the US actually outperformed Italy (yet the spelling system of Italian is 
arguably more phonetic than that of English). And, again, literacy is, by other 
reports, quite high in Japan, even though the primary writing system of 
Japanese is not a spelling system at all; ditto Chinese.

The logical conclusion would seem to be that spelling systems are at best of 
minor importance with respect to literacy. At any rate, arguments asserting 
the efficacy of a particular methodology based on supposedly changing literacy 
rates in the USA are meretricious, not only because just what "illiteracy" 
means is open to variation in interpretation (e.g., the CIA's surprising assertion 
that only 1% of American adults are illiterate, meaning perhaps that 1% of 
American adults cannot sign their own names bjut must make an X?), but also 
because the data themselves point to no clear direction.

The following information comes from The Condition of Education, U.S. 
Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2007) (NCES 
2007ñ064)--summary at

What are the literacy levels of adults, and how does the United States 
compare to other countries?
National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)
Adults age 16 or older were assessed in three types of literacy (prose, 
document, and quantitative) in 1992 and 2003. Literacy is defined as "using printed 
and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and 
to develop one's knowledge and potential." The average prose and document 
literacy scores of U.S. adults were not measurably different in 2003 from 1992, but 
the average quantitative literacy score increased 8 points between these 

One measure of literacy is the percentage of adults who perform at four 
achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient. In each type 
of literacy, 13 percent of adults were at or above Proficient (indicating they 
possess the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy 
activities) in 2003. Twenty-two percent of adults were Below Basic (indicating 
they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills) in 
quantitative literacy, compared with 14 percent in prose literacy and 12 percent in 
document literacy.

Differences in average literacy scores were apparent by sex and 
race/ethnicity. Women scored higher than men on prose and document literacy in 2003, unlike 
in 1992. Men outperformed women on quantitative literacy in both years. Male 
scores declined in prose and document literacy from 1992 to 2003, while female 
scores increased in document and quantitative literacy. In 1992 and 2003, 
White and Asian/Pacific Islander adults had higher average scores than their 
Black and Hispanic peers in the three types of literacy assessed. Black 
performance increased in each type of literacy from 1992 to 2003, while Hispanic average 
scores declined in prose and document literacy.
Additional differences in average literacy were apparent by education and 
age. Educational attainment is positively related to all three types of literacy: 
those with any education after high school outperformed their peers with less 
education in 1992 and 2003. Between these years, average prose literacy 
decreased for most levels of educational attainment, and average document literacy 
decreased for those with some college, associate's degrees, and college 
graduates. From 1992 to 2003, the average prose, document, and quantitative literacy 
scores of adults ages 50-64 and 65 or older increased.

... U.S. adults outperformed adults in Italy in 2003, but were outperformed 
by adults in Norway, Bermuda, Canada, and Switzerland. Adults in Bermuda, 
Norway, and Canada had higher literacy scores than U.S. adults at both the high and 
low ends of the score distribution.

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