43 Million American Adults Have ‘Low’ English Literacy Levels

White and Hispanic adults make up the largest percentage of U.S. adults with low levels of English literacy, according to the most recent results of a survey on adult skills.

The National Center for Education Statistics has released a Data Point entitled “Adult Literacy in the United States,” that summarizes what data from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) show about adult literacy in the U.S.

The findings include the following:

  • Forty-three million U.S adults possess low English literacy skills.
  • U.S.-born adults make up 66% of adults with low levels of English literacy skills in the United States.
  • Non-U.S.-born adults comprise 34% of the population with low literacy skills.
  • White and Hispanic adults make 35% and 34%, respectively, of U.S. adults with low levels of English literacy.

PIAAC is a large-scale international study of working-age adults (ages 16–65) that assesses adult skills in three domains (literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving) and collects information on adults’ education, work experience, and other background characteristics. In the United States, when the study was conducted in 2011–12 and 2013–14, respondents were first asked questions about their background, with an option to be interviewed in English or Spanish, followed by a skills assessment in English. Because the skills assessment was conducted only in English, all U.S. PIAAC literacy results are for English literacy.

Four in five U.S. adults (79%) have English literacy skills sufficient to complete tasks that require comparing and contrasting information, paraphrasing, or making low-level inferences—literacy skills at level 2 or above in PIAAC (OECD 2013). In contrast, one in five U.S. adults (21%) has difficulty completing these tasks. This translates into 43.0 million U.S. adults who possess low literacy skills: 26.5 million at level 1 and 8.4 million below level 1, while 8.2 million could not participate in PIAAC’s background survey either because of a language barrier or a cognitive or physical inability to be interviewed. These adults who were unable to participate are categorized as having low English literacy skills, as is done in international reports (OECD 2013), although no direct assessment of their skills is available.

Adults classified as below level 1 may be considered functionally illiterate in English: i.e., unable to successfully determine the meaning of sentences, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information, or complete simple forms (OECD 2013).

PIAAC was developed and organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In the United States, PIAAC was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education. More PIAAC results are available on the NCES website at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/.

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