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Understanding Literacy and Numeracy

Apple sitting on a stack of books next to a laptop.

People need literacy and numeracy skills to find, understand, and use health information and services.

Literacy, numeracy, and technology skills are increasingly important in today's information-rich environments. What people know and what they do with what they know has a major impact on their life chances. For example, people with lower literacy proficiency are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health.

The resources on this page briefly explain literacy and numeracy and how they are measured in national education surveys. You will find a link to adult health literacy data. The page also contains links to resources that discuss literacy policies and practices and ideas about how to promote literacy and numeracy.

What are Adult Literacy and Numeracy?

The U.S. Department of Education defines adult literacy and numeracy in terms of skills that help people accomplish tasks and realize their purposes. Researchers can measure literacy and numeracy skills, but skills are not static. People can build their skills, and even adults with limited skills can get better results when their environments accommodate the skills they have.

  • Literacy is understanding, evaluating, using, and engaging with written text to participate in the society, to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential.
  • Numeracy is the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.

Population Measures of Literacy, Numeracy, Health Literacy Skills and Technology Use

Adult Health Literacy Skills

The U.S. Department of Education collects and reports data adult literacy and numeracy skills. In 2006, they published the only national data on health literacy skills. These studies found that adults who self-report the worst health also have the most limited literacy, numeracy, and health literacy skills.

Youth Literacy Skills

The Department of Education also collects and reports data on school-aged children and youth. Elementary school children with weak literacy and numeracy skills often struggle academically through the middle and high school years. Research shows that academic success, risky behaviors and health status are linked.

Data on Adults' Literacy and Numeracy Skills

The most current adult literacy data come from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, a 23 country comparative study. This study assessed adults' proficiency in three domains: literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. Below we present select findings on literacy and numeracy.

In each of these domains, adults perform tasks with different levels of complexity. Their skills with these tasks are quantified and categorized into "proficiency levels." The proficiency level "below level 1" is the lowest level and "level 5" is the highest proficiency level. If they can perform the most complex tasks, they are rated as having proficient skill.

Only 12% of U.S. adults scored in the highest literacy proficiency levels, and only 9% scored in the highest numeracy levels.

PIAAC* literacy scale pie chart. Below level 1: 4%. Level 1: 14%. Level 2: 34%.Level 3: 36%.Level 4/5: 12%.

Figure 1: Percentage of U.S. adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC* literacy scale

PIAAC* numeracy scale pie chart.  Below level 1: 10%. Level 1: 20%. Level 2: 34%.Level 3: 27%.Level 4/5: 9%.

Figure 2: Percentage of U.S. adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC* numeracy scale



Below you will find other research studies on literacy, numeracy, and related skills and knowledge.

  • 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.
    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)
  • 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.
  • Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (Georgia State University)

This website describes one of several U.S. Department of Education funded research centers. It also provides literacy resources and information about readability.

Policy, Practice and Promotion

This section contains important links that discuss literacy and numeracy policies and practices and ideas about how to promote literacy and numeracy.

  • 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.
  • Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS) (U.S. Department of Education)