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Understanding Literacy

When you implement your health interventions and programs, do you target older adults, minority or immigrant populations, or people who haven't graduated from high school? If so, you should think about limited literacy skills as a factor in your intervention or program design. Limited literacy is an issue for 93 million adult Americans. They have below basic or basic literacy skills, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Older adults, minority and immigrant populations and people without a high school degree are more likely to have limited literacy skills.

Although literacy skills are a necessary element of health literacy, literacy and health literacy aren't the same. People with strong literacy skills still can find health information difficult to understand and use because the information is filled with jargon and poorly presented and the recommended actions are unclear. Researchers find that adults' literacy skills do not change much over time, but health professionals can change the information context and environment that will help adults make the most of the skills they have.1 A solid understanding of literacy will help you identify when and how to address limited literacy AND limited health literacy in your intervention design and implementation.

The resources on this page explain what literacy is and how it is measured.The page also contains important links that discuss literacy policies, practices and advocacy.

Map: Percent of adults with below basic prose literacy skills

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  • National Assessment of Adult Literacy (U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences)
    The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy is a nationally representative assessment of English literacy among American adults age 16 and older.
  • Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS) (U.S. Department of Education)
  • The Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (Portland State University)
    The Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning project addresses key questions about the literacy development, learning and life experiences of low-education adults over time.
  • Adult literacy surveys (Educational Testing Service (ETS))
    This pages summarizes several adult literacy surveys ETS has conducted since 1986.
  • National Assessment of Educational Progress
    The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Assessments are conducted periodically in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history. (U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences)
    This web site is a resource on research and development on literacy in the U.S. and worldwide. (University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education)
  • Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) )
    PIAAC is an international assessment of adult literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills across OECD member countries.
  • Research reports from the U.K. National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (The U.K. National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC))
    The National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) conducts research and development projects to improve literacy, numeracy, language and related skills and knowledge. NRDC is the national independent centre for adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL in England.

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Policy, Practice and Advocacy

  • Office of Vocational and Adult Education web site (U.S. Department of Education)
    OVAE administers and coordinates programs for adult education and literacy, career and technical education, and community colleges.
  • National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium
    The Consortium leads staff in adult education in the states and territories to increase literacy and prepare adults for success as contributing members of society.
  • National Coalition for Literacy
    The Coalition advances adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the U.S. by increasing public awareness for the need to increase funding and programs; promoting effective public policy; and serving as a resource on national adult education issues.
  • ProLiteracy web site (ProLiteracy)
    ProLiteracy helps build the capacity and quality of programs that are teaching adults to read, write, compute, use technology, and learn English as a new language.
  • Review of Adult Learning and Literacy (National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy)
    This resource presents the major issues, research, and best practices in the field of adult learning and literacy. The resource is for policymakers, scholars, and practitioners.
  • Literature review of international adult literacy policies (Irish National Adult Literacy Agency)
    This report summarizes research on adult literacy policies and initiatives in a number of developed countries since 1990. In addition to highlighting the impacts of literacy and literacy initiatives on wider policy agendas, including health, employment and active citizenship, the report identifies specific policy developments and interventions aimed at people with basic skill needs.

1Reder, S. and Bynner, J. Eds. (2009). Tracking Adult Literacy and Numeracy Skills. New York: Routledge.

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  • Page last reviewed: August 9, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 12, 2014 The U.S. Government's Official Web PortalDepartment of Health and Human Services
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