More on adult literacy in the USA

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sun Apr 20 15:12:25 UTC 2008

Why am I not relieved to read about one adult American in four is barely literate?

  Consider the implications of: "Between [1992 and 2003], 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."

  I remember vividly the Dept. of Education report in 1982/83 that concluded that (memorial paraphrase follows) "if a foreign power had conspired to place U.S. education in its current condition, it would rightly be considered an act of war."


RonButters at AOL.COM wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: RonButters at AOL.COM
Subject: More on adult literacy in the USA

Note the following, seemingly most reliable, statistics, which indicate that=
22%--not 50%!--of Americans in 2003 were marginally illiterate ("possess no=20
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 conc=
literacy skills" are not be the same thing. Note also that Canada and Bermud=
both outperformed the US, despite using virtually the same spelling system,=20
while the US actually outperformed Italy (yet the spelling system of Italian=
arguably more phonetic than that of English). And, again, literacy is, by ot=
reports, quite high in Japan, even though the primary writing system of=20
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=20
the efficacy of a particular methodology based on supposedly changing litera=
rates in the USA are meretricious, not only because just what "illiteracy"=20
means is open to variation in interpretation (e.g., the CIA's surprising ass=
that only 1% of American adults are illiterate, meaning perhaps that 1% of=20
American adults cannot sign their own names bjut must make an X?), but also=20
because the data themselves point to no clear direction.

The following information comes from The Condition of Education, U.S.=20
Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2007) (N=
2007=F1064)--summary at

What are the literacy levels of adults, and how does the United States=20
compare to other countries?
National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)
Adults age 16 or older were assessed in three types of literacy (prose,=20
document, and quantitative) in 1992 and 2003. Literacy is defined as "using=20=
and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and=20
to develop one's knowledge and potential." The average prose and document=20
literacy scores of U.S. adults were not measurably different in 2003 from 19=
92, but=20
the average quantitative literacy score increased 8 points between these=20

One measure of literacy is the percentage of adults who perform at four=20
achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient. In eac=
h type=20
of literacy, 13 percent of adults were at or above Proficient (indicating th=
possess the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy=20
activities) in 2003. Twenty-two percent of adults were Below Basic (indicati=
they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills) in=20
quantitative literacy, compared with 14 percent in prose literacy and 12 per=
cent in=20
document literacy.

Differences in average literacy scores were apparent by sex and=20
race/ethnicity. Women scored higher than men on prose and document literacy=20=
in 2003, unlike=20
in 1992. Men outperformed women on quantitative literacy in both years. Male=
scores declined in prose and document literacy from 1992 to 2003, while fema=
scores increased in document and quantitative literacy. In 1992 and 2003,=20
White and Asian/Pacific Islander adults had higher average scores than their=
Black and Hispanic peers in the three types of literacy assessed. Black=20
performance increased in each type of literacy from 1992 to 2003, while Hisp=
anic average=20
scores declined in prose and document literacy.
Additional differences in average literacy were apparent by education and=20
age. Educational attainment is positively related to all three types of lite=
those with any education after high school outperformed their peers with les=
education in 1992 and 2003. Between these years, average prose literacy=20
decreased for most levels of educational attainment, and average document li=
decreased for those with some college, associate's degrees, and college=20
graduates. From 1992 to 2003, the average prose, document, and quantitative=20=
scores of adults ages 50-64 and 65 or older increased.

... U.S. adults outperformed adults in Italy in 2003, but were outperformed=20
by adults in Norway, Bermuda, Canada, and Switzerland. Adults in Bermuda,=20
Norway, and Canada had higher literacy scores than U.S. adults at both the h=
igh and=20
low ends of the score distribution.

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the largest site for U.S. used car listings at AOL Autos.

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