The National Institute for Literacy states, "More than 20 percent of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level—far below the level needed to earn a living wage. The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) found that at least 40 million Americans age 16 and older have significant literacy needs." (National Institute for Literacy). Those 40 million are at the lowest NALS level. Level One.

Fifty million adults are said to be in the next lowest level. Level Two. That means over 90 million adults would test in the two lowest literacy levels. These numbers are often quoted in overviews of the "illiteracy problem" in American and in introductions to proposals for adult literacy funding.

In the 1990s, the NALS survey made headlines asserting that there was a literacy crisis. This claim has been met with criticism. Matthews, in The Washington Post, states of the NALS, "it was wrong." (Mathews 9)

Some literacy advocates acknowledge that the NALS may have been alarmist or an overstatement, but say that the result brought needed attention to an important problem (Mathews). If there are more and more people not able to read, it is easier to make an argument to increase funding for adult literacy.

The NALS states that 7.7 million adults age 16-64 are estimated to be unable to perform tasks that require the simplest literacy and math. Just under eight million adults are people who might be called "illiterate."   The rest of that twenty percent mentioned above can read and write at some level, but may be unable to perform many literacy tasks that they face each day (National Institute for Literacy).

What Is The Literacy Problem In America?

Although very low literacy is a serious problem for an individual, and 7.7 million very low literate adults is a problem society should address, the number of adults who cannot read does not pose a threat to the economy.

The economy may pose a threat to them, however. For example, if sixty percent of new jobs require only low to moderate levels of literacy, what incentive does the economy provide for any more than forty percent of the population to achieve high levels of literacy?

Even if high levels are achieved, only forty percent of new jobs will require such levels.   If seventy percent of the population achieves a high level of literacy, thirty percent would to settle for jobs below their skill levels (Mishel).

Mishel refers to the "skills deficit model." He sees the skills deficit model as "a good way to absolve the government and society, and to blame individuals (12)." The model implies that everyone has good opportunities for education and financial security.

If this were true, anyone who does not get a good education and a good job must be lacking of character, strength, determination, and intelligence. If the skills deficit model is true, individuals are to blame, not society. This model goes against Bowles and Gintis's points of view on society's responsibilities for many people's lack of education (Bowles and Gintis).

Howell points out that wages have also been declining since the early 1970s (Howell). The jobs in America are getting worse in terms of what they pay. This certainly gets complicated.

Literacy levels have risen since the early 1970s. The literacy demands of the workplace and society have probably risen too. Standards for literacy have risen. There are more literate people now than there were thirty years ago, but wages have decreased. To me, that means that the workplace does not automatically reward or support high levels of literacy.

Sticht refers to a potential "basic skills surplus'' (Sticht 21) This theory is in opposition to a "skills deficit model" that blames workers' lack of skill for low wage jobs. Sticht claims there are more than enough people who have the literacy skills to perform all the jobs that exist.

Many people do not have the literacy skills that some jobs require, but there are more people who are qualified than there are actual jobs that demand high levels of literacy. Many people end up taking jobs that are below the level of skill and literacy they possess, and often these jobs are lower-paying.

Kibby articulates a somewhat different point of view. He says many jobs in the start of this millennium will require less literacy as technology advances make people less reliant on print and more reliant on computers.

Other jobs that involve gaining, transforming, and transmitting information will require increased and more complex levels of literacy (Kibby). This may make our socio-economic structure less permeable. According to Kibby's prediction, there will be many jobs that will not require high levels of literacy, but "better jobs will require extremely high levels of literacy (380)."

It will be harder to advance from the many low-paying jobs to the fewer high-paying jobs. Mikulecky talks about technology and literacy becoming more integrating, requiring "multiple literacies (Mikulecky 379).''

There are many statistics linking low literacy and lack of education to poverty and income levels. It is true that people with higher literacy levels and more formal education make more money than low literate high school dropouts. Sticht writes the words "Knowledge Pays" above a chart showing that people with high literacy levels make more money than people with medium level literacy, who make more money than people with low literacy (Sticht 24).

There is, however, no evidence that increasing one's literacy level increases one's income. Perhaps these traits merely coexist. Perhaps certain people in our society are more likely to reap certain benefits such as affluence, education, health, longevity, and literacy—while others are more likely to be poor, uneducated, and less healthy, have a shorter life span, and have lower levels of literacy skills.

Who Are Low-Literate Adults In America?

According to the NALS study, low-literate adults are fairly evenly divided by gender. A disproportionate number of low-literate adults are people of color. Although white people are not the majority of adults with literacy problems, they are the largest, or modal, racial group.

The modal low-literate adult is likely to be employed, but is "in the lower fourth of the U.S. income scale (Reder 3)." Adults in the lowest NALS level worked an average of eighteen to nineteen hours each week. Adults in the three highest levels worked an average of between thirty-four and forty-four hours each week.

Level one adults were more likely than level four and five adults to receive food stamps. They were less likely than level four and five adults to receive interest from a bank account.

Two-thirds of level one adults dropped out of high school before receiving a diploma. Many express an awareness of a reading problem while they were in school.

Twenty-five percent were immigrants, who may have had limited proficiency in English, although that was not measured by NALS. One third were age 65 or older. One fourth had health conditions—physical and/or mental—that prevented full participation in school and other activities. Almost one fifth reported having vision problems (National Center for Educational Statistics).

Fingeret's research found many adults who felt they had to make a choice between behaviors that were socially acceptable in their peer group and behavior that was acceptable in school. Some felt classified by the school system, felt powerless and became resistant or passive. Many feel they were passed through the system even though they could not do the work (Fingeret).

Not Learning To Read

One reason to study the causes of illiteracy is to prevent future illiteracy. If we knew the variables, it might be possible to avoid or eliminate them. Another reason is to know how to help people who reach adulthood unable to read and write.

If we knew what adult illiterates missed in the process of developing literacy, it might be easier to repair the situation. These are two different but related questions.

Literacy develops through exposure, modeling, and practice, all of which are mainly unconscious. Because this acquisition happens somewhat naturally, it is not dependent on the conscious understanding of it. People can learn to read without understanding how they are learning, or even that they are learning.

It is difficult to accurately understand and explain acquired behaviors. How did we learn to speak, learn to walk, learn to run, learn to read, and learn to write? Most people can do all of those with alacrity, but may have misconceptions of how they actually do it all and how they acquired the abilities (Fingeret).

There is substantial research about the acquisition of literacy in children. Still there is some debate and uncertainty. There are many heated phonics versus whole language debates. There is substantial information on adult literacy demographics, which adults can or cannot read and write, and the relationships between low-literacy and income, health, and incarceration.

Knowing how most people acquire literacy and having the demographics on those who did not acquire literacy skills is important, but it is not everything. That knowledge does not explain what happened to block, discourage, and prevent the literacy development of adults who cannot read.

Scant research addresses the causes of adult illiteracy. Literacy is acquired. That means it develops over a long period of time, mainly unconsciously and sometimes unnoticed. It is hard to know how, when, and why it does not occur. Part of studying illiteracy is looking for what is not there and what did not happen (Fingeret).

Although conducting such research is difficult, some studies exist do exist. Heath's Ways With Words, for example, explores the language, learning, and literacy of two communities in North Carolina. She studied two neighboring communities for years and years.

Heath paints a clear portrait of the complexities of development, but her goal was to understand the two cultures and how they may differ from other cultures.

She is not only trying to understand why some individuals in many different cultures do not learn to read. She is looking at many other issues. This is the sort of rich research that is uncommon in the body of adult literacy research (Heath).

Taylor asked adult learners to explain the causes of their inability to read. She separated her findings into two categories: school centered problems and student-centered problems.

Teachers' lack of awareness of any problems and the students" own reluctance to draw attention to any problems or ask for any help was a commonly reported school-centered problem. Other problems included "thinking of one's self as "dumb." and teachers considered racist, lazy, or too rigid (71)." Student centered problems included trauma, peer pressure, embarrassment, and lack of support at home.

Traumatic occurrences early in life were often reported in interviews: death of a parent, a parent with a substance-abuse problem, or extreme poverty. Peer pressure was reported as a reason for not taking school seriously or leaving school altogether.

Interviewees frequently reported that their own embarrassment about not being able to read was the cause for not obtaining help. A few students mentioned that no one at home was “supporting them or pushing them during the school years (Taylor, et. al. 72).”

Fingeret interviewed adults with low literacy about their backgrounds. Her research also found school to be an important factor. Interviewees mention parents who think school is unnecessary, teachers who did not teach much, and being passed on to the next grade even though they were not developing skills.

"Dyslexia, parents who could not read, being physically abused, being "wild," and misbehaving are other factors interviewees report. (Fingeret 43)."

The environment is also suggested as a cause for illiteracy. Basic literacy development begins before a child is of school age, but the role of schooling is important as development continues or, in the case of children who are not learning to read, does not continue.

Bowles and Gintis examine the disparities in perceptions of education among students from different socioeconomic strata and the causes for those disparities, including the roles that schools play in replicating the inequalities that exist in society and in general (Bowles & Gintis).

Halliday refers to the stereotypical hypothesis—that teachers' expectations for students correspond closely to degree of divergence of the students' dialects from the "standard." He also suggests that these expectations are lived out by the students.

Thus the model of literacy set forth for imitation by the teacher is less sophisticated, and second, the "teacher expect less in terms of their students' capacity to succeed in that model (Halliday 77)."

Clay's work with low-literate children points to some possible causes for adult illiteracy. Children who cannot read may become adults who cannot read. Reading Recovery, a program she developed in New Zealand, has been adapted for successful use in the United States.

It is designed to catch poor reading in first graders and provide them with intensive, individual, short-term instruction. The poorest readers, the bottom twenty percent of the first grade, are eligible for the program. Low-literate adults who attended school and never learned to read were "probably once in the lowest twenty percent of their classes (Clay 83)."

Several features of Reading Recovery may point to causes of low-literate adults. The program stresses building on strengths in order to help students develop strategies and confidence. Specific strategies that can be used independently such as self-monitoring, cross-checking, predicting and confirming are taught.

Writing as well as reading is stressed. Meaning is stressed even at the most beginning levels. Students in reading recovery learn sounds from the words they are reading. Many other approaches start with the sounds and work towards words.

Meaning comes last and sometimes not too often. In Reading Recovery, there are high expectations for students. There is an assumption that reading problems will be fixed, that students who are behind will catch up. Students are expected to make fast progress in Reading Recovery (Clay).

Low-Literate Adults In Education Programs

Most people who have reading problems do not enroll in programs (Fingeret). In 1999, the US Department of Education looked at literacy program participation and found that 1,555,709 were in Adult Basic Education, defined as having below eighth grade skill levels.

The department does not give a breakdown of reading level within that category. New York City does breakdown enrollees by level. The New York City Adult Literacy Initiative reports that about twenty-five percent of enrolled students in their programs are very low-literate (Literacy Assistance Center).

Adults in literacy programs are different from children in school.   They have the life experience, the emotional maturity, and the oral language of adults. Part of that life experience is about literacy, education, schools, and teachers.

Another important difference is that adults in literacy programs usually participate on a voluntary basis, while school for children is compulsory. The exceptions are adults in welfare-to-work programs, alternatives to incarceration, and prison education. Those programs may be compulsory.

Otherwise, adults can and do exercise the right to enter and leave programs at will. This can make their learning experiences uneven and filled with gaps in which much of what is learned may well be lost. Fingeret found that many students leave programs before they reach their goals.

Problems with transportation and health, as well as dissatisfaction with instruction, were often reported causes of leaving (Fingeret).  The Literacy Assistance Center of New York City cites fifty percent as the approximate figure for attrition during the first six months (Literacy Assistance Center).

Lost time is an important consideration for adults in literacy programs. Even if the only reason adults did not learn to read were lack of exposure and lack of opportunity, they are still years behind. It takes a long time to learn to read. Reading is a very complicated activity.

People who learned to read as children did not have the pressures adults have. The texts children are asked to handle are much simpler than the everyday texts any adult has to negotiate to survive. Bills, leases, job applications, tax forms, and instruction manuals are complex documents, with different variations of language as well as different conventions and formats.

Although many adults claim to have learned to read at the age of six, they were really at the beginning stages of reading at that age and were reading simple texts at that age. They have been working at learning to read for years and years beyond that, continuing to learn as they face new or more complicated texts throughout life.

They did not notice the hard and often frustrating work of learning how to read because their abilities were never overwhelmed by the reading demands of their lives. Learning to read what most adults need to read in daily life is a much bigger task than learning to read what a child needs to read in daily life. Under the best of all possible circumstances, it should take a long time for a beginner to become a skilled adult reader.