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Three Keys to Increasing Adults’ Literacy Skills

February 27, 2020

Estimates from the three national adult literacy assessments conducted since 1992 indicate that the number of adults in the United States with low English literacy and numeracy skills has remained constant.  The most recent assessment—the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)—revealed that one in five U.S. adults (36 million) lacks the English literacy skills needed to perform lilteracy tasks such as comparing and contrasting information or making low-level inferences. Of those adults, 8 million were unable to understand sentences, read relatively short texts, or complete simple forms.

Per Feinberg, Greenberg, and Frijters’ analysis of the 2012 U.S. PIAAC study, the implications of low literacy and numeracy are significant for adults; they typically have significantly lower health literacy and poorer health outcomes. As noted in Holzer and Lerman’s examination of PIAACE data concerning cognitive skills and labor market outcomes, adults with lower literacy are more likely to be underemployed and in low-wage jobs with limited opportunity for advancement.

I was a panelist at the Barbara Bush Foundation’s Summit on Adult Literacy in November. While adult literacy has been recognized as a pressing issue, we are identifying more  consequences for the economic and social well-being of adults with low literacy. However, we have yet to identify solutions that can be implemented effectively with a wide range of adults. That said, here are some specific challenges we need to address:

1. Innovative Solutions. As stakeholders aim to reach more adults who can benefit from enhanced literacy skills, research suggests that innovative approaches are needed for engaging and teaching these adults. While existing adult literacy services can help adults develop their skills, new strategies are needed to attract adults to develop their literacy skills and persist in their education.

2. Data and Research. High-quality data and research can help us understand the prevalence of low literacy at national, state, and local levels; the range of current literacy service providers and where there are gaps in service provision; the types of approaches used to develop skills that are effective and better strategies for preparing instructors to teach; and the types of new technologies that can be used to help adults strengthen their skills. 

3. Financing. To collect data and conduct research that results in better solutions for increasing the literacy skills of adults, we will need  financing beyond the current support provided by federal agencies. Between the benefits to employers who have outstanding workforce needs and subsequent benefits to the economy, it makes sense for the private sector to become more involved in the efforts to get this segment of the population better integrated into the economy.  

My hope is that, because the scale of the issue is large, the number of interested parties will be similarly large. If we can bring together researchers, practitioners, the relevant federal and state agencies, and the private sector, I think we can build solutions that will bolster the health and well-being of millions of Americans who will provide a return on that investment through their greater participation in our economy. And greater integration into the economy means these solutions can have follow-on effects for generations to come. So, as we consider how to address adult literacy, it is important to understand that it is a multi-faceted, multi-generational issue that can have similarly far reaching benefits if addressed effectively.

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