Let’s Talk About Adult Literacy

Monday, Feb 22, 2016

Hi reader! Thanks for stopping by. I heard that you had some questions about adult literacy, and specifically about the work we do around adult literacy. So let’s talk about it. We don’t necessarily think that you don’t know what literacy is, but there is a lot more to it than just the ability to read. So, without further ado, let’s talk about literacy.

Okay, I’m here. So, what is literacy, exactly?

Literacy is “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” This is a fancy way of saying that literacy is the ability to make sense of written words, and in our case, words that are written in English. Our country is full of words and an individual who is low literate will have a harder time making sense of written words than one who isn’t. Think about it: if you had difficulty with reading, everyday things like utility bills, instruction manuals, prescriptions, job applications and books of all shapes, sizes, and genres could be a blank slate for you.

Wait a minute. “Low literate”? You mean “illiterate” right?

You could say that. But we are a society that places a lot of value on the ability to read, and the descriptive term “illiterate,” in our view, has some pretty negative connotations. We don’t use it to describe people if we can help it.

Besides, research has proven that literacy isn’t a static value–that is to say, the days are behind us where we think about literacy as: a person either definitely can or definitely cannot read. Literacy is best measured on a continuum, and individuals who are low literate vary between the inability to understand the most basic of words to the ability to read at a level equivalent to a middle school student. Those are the people we’re helping, and according to our research, the majority of the people that we serve have the same amount of reading ability as an elementary school student. But that measurement still doesn’t account for the ability to do things like fill out a deposit slip, find the time of an event on a flyer, or perform other simple tasks, which many of our learners can do.

Another term that people use is “functionally illiterate.” You can learn more about that term by clicking this link.

So how do people end up low literate?

The reasons are many and varied, but there are some universal markers: people of specific racial/ethnic groups, people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and people whose first language is not English are more likely to be low literate than other groups of people. This is very much due to the fact that people from these groups are walking around with a weighted knapsack strapped to them, so to speak: the disadvantages that they face as a result of social marginalization makes educational achievement difficult, even if they try really, really hard.

However, even controlling for this, there is still no one concrete reason for low literacy in adults, and to categorize literacy ability as achievement is wrong of me: Many of these adults terminated their high school career before they completed it, but many still have high school diplomas, and some have even completed college courses.

Even though we have difficulty discussing the reasons why people have a hard time developing intermediate or advanced literacy skills, we are very certain on the factors that DO NOT result in low literacy for adults:

  • Laziness
  • Lack of Intelligence
  • Ancestry
  • Ethnicity
  • Innate Ability

What do illit–I’m sorry, low literate adults look like?

Like you and me! I’m not joking. The most recent statistics report that about 14% of individuals in the United States of America are unable to read at a basic level. That’s more than 30 million folks, split up among all kinds of ethnicities, genders, religions, and walks of life.

More than 100,000 of those people call the Mid-South their home. And they’re a varied bunch of people, any of whom you could be interacting with on a daily basis. We’ve assisted aspiring novelistsbusiness owners, and scholars. At Literacy Mid-South, we recognize where our adult learners have been, but we also focus on where they want to go.

Okay, okay. I’m sold. Low literate adults need help. But how can I help? I’m just one person!

There are a few ways that you can help. Advocacy is important. Tell your friends the truth about what low literacy in adults looks like. Spread the word on the effect it has on people’s lives. Dispel myths, rumors, and misunderstandings about low literate people, and point people in the direction of information and assistance.

If you want to be more active, consider volunteering with Literacy Mid-South. The dedication, time, and energy of our volunteers allows us to directly assist low literate adults across the Mid-South. Tutors not only assist adult learners in directly improving their literacy skill, they also help learners create confidence in their ability to achieve. Even if you aren’t able to tutor an adult, you can help at Literacy Mid-South’s special events, which help foster a joy of reading among Mid-Southerners. You can click this link for more information on volunteering.

If you are someone who is constantly on the go and can’t dedicate time, you can always assist with a financial donation. Donations provide Literacy Mid-South with the flexibility it needs to provide top of the line instruction and training to tutors, as well as assisting with other programs that directly impact the literacy ability of adults in the Mid-South, such as our Read Memphis project. Click this link for more information on donating.

Wow, okay. That’s a lot of information, but I think I got it.

Cool! I’m glad you stopped by to chat. Thanks for being so open minded about this and remember, you can stop back by here anytime if you have more questions!