Types Of Literacy

The U.S. Department of Education surveys tested respondents on three types of reading ability:

Prose Literacy: The skills needed to comprehend and use information from continuous texts such as newspaper articles.

Document Literacy: The knowledge and skills needed to comprehend and use information from noncontinuous texts such as simple statistical tables.

Quantitative Literacy: The knowledge and skills needed to identify and perform computations using numbers embedded in printed materials such as tax forms. Example: Calculating a tip or a loan rate.

FURTHER

READING_

The Twin Challenges of Mediocrity and Inequality: Literacy in the U.S. from an International Perspective. Andrew Sum, Irwin Kirsh and Robert Taggart. Educational Testing Service, 2002. www.ets.org/Media/ Research/pdf/PICTWIN.pdf

A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century. National Center for Educational Statistics, December 2005. http://nces.ed.gov/ pubsearch/pubsinfo. asp?pubid=2006470

Or m

Dumbing Down

THE NEW ILLITERACY—A CHALLENGE TO THE BODY POLITIC? BY RODGER DOYLE

or many years, the U.S. measured literacy simply by asking respondents whether they could read or write, an approach perhaps sufficiently adequate when most people worked with their hands. Using this method, the Census Bureau in 1969 estimated that illiteracy in the U.S. population age 14 and older was only 1 percent.

In 1992 the U.S. Department of Education embarked on a more thorough analysis and mounted a landmark survey. It asked a representative group of 26,091 Americans to read several texts and then had them demonstrate that they understood the texts. The department used three types—prose, document and quantitative texts [see sidebar]—containing fairly simple material encountered in everyday life. The study was repeated in 2003.

As the table shows, the most heartening and robust statistic to emerge from these surveys was an improvement in African-American scores over the span covered by the two surveys. Other changes were less robust. Women's scores improved while men's declined. Asian-Americans made gains, but Hispanics fell substantially in two of the three categories, possibly reflecting recent immigration from Latin American countries. Test scores fell among all educational groups, including college graduates, perhaps because less proficient young people were drawn into the educational system and the proportion of those 50 and older in the U.S. had increased by 2003. (Older individuals tend to score lower than younger ones.)

A continuing flow of poorly schooled migrants feeds U.S. illiteracy, which helps to explain why the nation has higher illiteracy rates than, say, the Nordic countries, which have relatively few migrants. This stream refreshes the pool of minimally literate Amer icans. But more than showing that illiteracy has persisted over time, the Department of Education surveys have also revealed its extent across the U.S. population. The 2003 study found that at least 12 percent of those surveyed were classified as having, in the terminology of the report, "below basic" skills, meaning that they could perform no more than the most simple and concrete literacy tasks, such as locating information in short, commonplace texts.

Those in the next higher literacy group, who were labeled as having "basic" skills, account for 22 percent of adults. Though some

PERCENT CHANGE IN ADULT LITERACY SCORES,

1992 TO 2003

LITERACY TYPE

Prose

Document

Quantitative

TOTAL

-0.6

-0.2

+2.6

GENDER

Male

-1.5*

-1.9*

+1.0

Female

+0.3

+1.5*

+4.0*

RACE, ETHNICITY

White

+0.4

+0.3

+3.1*

Black

+2.8*

+3.5*

+ 7.3*

Hispanic

-7.4*

-6.0*

-0.3

Asian, Pacific Islander

+6.2*

+ 5.1

+6.1

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