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Adult literacy

Question:
What are the literacy levels of adults, and how does the United States compare to other countries?

Response:

National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)

Adults age 16 or older were assessed in three types of literacy (prose, document, and quantitative) in 1992 and 2003. Literacy is defined as "using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential." The average prose and document literacy scores of U.S. adults were not measurably different in 2003 from 1992, but the average quantitative literacy score increased 8 points between these years.

One measure of literacy is the percentage of adults who perform at four achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient. In each type of literacy, 13 percent of adults were at or above Proficient (indicating they possess the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy activities) in 2003. Twenty-two percent of adults were Below Basic (indicating they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills) in quantitative literacy, compared with 14 percent in prose literacy and 12 percent in document literacy.

Differences in average literacy scores were apparent by sex and race/ethnicity. Women scored higher than men on prose and document literacy in 2003, unlike in 1992. Men outperformed women on quantitative literacy in both years. Male scores declined in prose and document literacy from 1992 to 2003, while female scores increased in document and quantitative literacy. In 1992 and 2003, White and Asian/Pacific Islander adults had higher average scores than their Black and Hispanic peers in the three types of literacy assessed. Black performance increased in each type of literacy from 1992 to 2003, while Hispanic average scores declined in prose and document literacy.

Additional differences in average literacy were apparent by education and age. Educational attainment is positively related to all three types of literacy: those with any education after high school outperformed their peers with less education in 1992 and 2003. Between these years, average prose literacy decreased for adults at most levels of educational attainment, and average document literacy decreased for those with some college, associate’s degrees, and college graduates. From 1992 to 2003, the average prose, document, and quantitative literacy scores of adults ages 50–64 and 65 or older increased.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). The Condition of Education 2007 (NCES 2007–064), Indicator 18.

Average prose, document, and quantitative literacy scores of adults age 16 or older, by selected characteristics: 1992 and 2003
Characteristic Prose Document Quantitative
1992 2003 1992 2003 1992 2003
Total 276 275 271 271 275 283
Sex
Male 276 272 274 269 283 286
Female 277 277 268 272 269 279
Race/ethnicity1
White 287 288 281 282 288 297
Black 237 243 230 238 222 238
Hispanic 234 216 238 224 233 233
Asian/Pacific Islander 255 271 259 272 268 285
Age
16-18 270 267 270 268 264 267
19-24 280 276 282 277 277 279
25-39 288 283 286 282 286 292
40-49 293 282 284 277 292 289
50-64 269 278 258 270 272 289
65 or older 235 248 221 235 235 257
Education
Still in high school 268 262 270 265 263 261
Less than/some high school 216 207 211 208 209 211
GED/high school equivalency 265 260 259 257 265 265
High school graduate 268 262 261 258 267 269
Vocational/trade/business school 278 268 273 267 280 279
Some college 292 287 288 280 295 294
Associate's/2-year degree 306 298 301 291 305 305
College graduate 325 314 317 303 324 323
Graduate studies/degree 340 327 328 311 336 332

1 Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. In 1992, respondents were allowed to identify only one race; in 2003, respondents were allowed to identify multiple races. Included in the total but not shown separately are American Indians/Alaska Natives and respondents with more than one race.

NOTE: Adults are defined as people age 16 or older living in households or prisons. Prose literacy is the knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks (i.e., to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts, such as paragraphs from stories); document literacy is the knowledge and skills needed to perform document tasks (i.e., to search, comprehend, and use information from noncontinuous texts in various formats, such as bills or prescription labels); and quantitative literacy is the knowledge and skills required to perform quantitative tasks (i.e., to identify and perform computations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials). Results are reported in terms of average scores on a 0–500 scale. To compare results between 1992 and 2003, the 1992 results were rescaled using the criteria and methods established for the 2003 assessment.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). The Condition of Education 2007 (NCES 2007-064),Table 18-1.

Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL)

In 2003, the United States participated in ALL along with five other countries. The study assessed the literacy and numeracy skills of adults ages 16–65 through a written test administered in respondents’ homes. In this study, literacy was defined as the knowledge and skills needed by adults, in life and at work, to use information from various texts (e.g., news stories, editorials, manuals, brochures) in various formats (e.g., texts, maps, tables, charts, forms, time tables). The ALL test questions were developed to assess the respondent’s ability to retrieve, compare, integrate, and synthesize information from texts and to make inferences, among other skills.

Results from ALL showed that U.S. adults outperformed adults in Italy in 2003, but were outperformed by adults in Norway, Bermuda, Canada, and Switzerland. Adults in Bermuda, Norway, and Canada had higher literacy scores than U.S. adults at both the high and low ends of the score distribution. The highest performers (the top 10 percent of adults) had literacy scores of 353 or higher in Bermuda, 348 or higher in Norway, and 344 or higher in Canada, compared with 333 or higher in the United States. The lowest performers (those in the bottom 10 percent) in Bermuda had literacy scores of 213 or lower, 233 or lower in Norway, and 209 or lower in Canada, compared with 201 or lower in the United States. The lowest performers in Switzerland also outperformed their U.S. counterparts in literacy, scoring 216 or lower.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). The Condition of Education 2006 (NCES 2006–071), Special Analysis.

Related Tables and Figures:  (Listed by Release Date)

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National Center for Education Statistics - http://nces.ed.gov
U.S. Department of Education