Simplified Spelling Reform - American Literacy Council
Simplified Spelling Reform - American Literacy Council
American Literacy Council - Non-Profit Innovators in Education Since 1876
Simplified Spelling Reform - American Literacy Council Simplified Spelling Reform - American Literacy Council

Literacy Statistics from the
National Adult Literacy Survey

What is the National Adult Literacy Survey?

The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) is a comprehensive study of adult literacy conducted in 1992 by the Educational Testing Service on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education. The study measured the English literacy skills of a random sample of over 26,000 individuals in the United States aged 16 years and older.

How was the study conducted?

The study was conducted in three parts: 

  • A national survey of 13,600 people
  • A survey of 1,000 people in each of twelve states, and
  • A survey of 1,100 inmates in 80 federal and states prisons.

In the study, participants were interviewed and asked to respond to a series of commonly encountered literacy tasks such as reading a bus schedule, using an automatic teller machine, or understanding a judge's instructions to a jury. Each participant received proficiency scores in three different areas: prose, document, and quantitative literacy. The results in each area were divided into five levels, with those at Level 1 being least proficient and those at Level 5 being most proficient.

What are the findings of the study?

The study found that between 21% and 23% of American adults are functioning at the lowest level. This is approximately 40 to 44 million people. At most, people at Level 1 are able to perform tasks involving "brief, uncomplicated text," such as totaling the entry on a bank deposit slip or locating information in a short news article, but many do so with difficulty. Others are unable to do so at all.

An additional 25 to 28% of the participants, representing 50 million American adults, are functioning at the Level 2. Those at this level have skills that the Department of Education describes as "more varied" than those at Level 1 but "still quite limited." They are able to locate information in a text, locate a particular intersection on a map, or determine the difference in price of two items. However, they have "considerable difficulty" carrying out tasks requiring them to use long texts or do 2-step calculations.

Interestingly, many respondents at Levels 1 and 2 did not consider themselves "at risk" because of their literacy skills. A majority of those at Level 1 and almost all those at Level 2 described themselves as being able to read English "well" or "very well." 

Approximately 33% of the participants, representing 61 million adults, had Level 3 skills. They could integrate information relatively easily from long texts, and perform more complicated tasks where quantities needed to be inferred from the narrative.

18 to 21% of the respondents, representing 34 to 40 million adults, performed at Levels 4 or 5. At these levels participants could successfully complete the most challenging tasks requiring the use of long and complex texts.

Which groups are most at risk of having the lowest level literacy skills?

Not surprisingly, those with the fewest years of education and those who are new to the United States were most likely to have limited literacy skills. 25% of the respondents at Level 1 were immigrants, and 62% had ended school before completing high school. A third were aged 65 or older, and 26% had physical or mental health conditions that prevented them from fully participating in everyday life. 19% reported that they had visual difficulties.

Respondents in Level 1 were more likely than those scoring at higher levels to have low incomes and fewer annual weeks of employment. Median income for those at Level 1 was about $240.00 per week, compared with approximately $650.00 for those at Level 5. Those at Level 1 reported an average of 18 to 19 weeks of employment in the previous year, while those at the three highest levels reported between 34 and 44 weeks of employment. Almost 44% of those at Level 1 were living below the poverty level.

Of those at Level 1, almost 58% of the eligible voters reported voting in a recent state or national election, compared to 80% of those at Level 4 and 90% of those at Level 5.

What is the significance of the NALS report?

The NALS report does not yield an absolute number of Americans who can be termed "illiterate." Rather, it is the first major scientific study to provide a picture of the abilities of American adults to use printed material to accomplish day-to-day tasks. The survey found that a very large number of people have significantly limited abilities, although many of these same people said they felt they could read "well."

The study also documents the correlation between limited literacy skills, limited economic opportunity, and limited participation in sociopolitical decisions. The NALS report says "literacy can be thought of as a currency in this society. Just as adults with little money have difficulty meeting their basic needs, those with limited literacy skills are going to find it more challenging to pursue their goals."

For more information:

The Department of Education released further reports on selected sub-groups thru June 1994. These include reports from the individual twelve states, and reports on prison literacy, literacy and the labor force, literacy and schooling, literacy and older adults, literacy and ethnicity, and literacy and political participation. For further information on these reports and their release dates, contact the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research & Improvement, 555 New Jersey Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20208-5641. Call (800) 424-1616 or (202) 219-1651. A full copy of the NALS report, entitled Adult Literacy in America, is available for approximately $12.00 from the U.S. Government Printing Office. Order publication # 065-000-00588-3. Call (202) 512-8000. Web address:


Simplified Spelling Reform - American Literacy Council
Simplified Spelling Reform - American Literacy Council
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Non-Profit Innovators in Education Since 1876

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