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National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)

1. Overview

Assesses literacy skills:
  • Prose
  • Document
  • Quantitative
Collects background data on:
  • Demographics
  • Education
  • Labor Market Experiences
  • Income
  • Activities

The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) is a nationally representative assessment of English literacy among American adults age 16 and older. Sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), NAAL is the nation’s most comprehensive measure of adult literacy since the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS).

In 2003, over 19,000 adults participated in the national and state-level assessments, representing the entire population of U.S. adults age 16 and older (in households and prisons) in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Approximately 1,200 of the participants were inmates of state and federal prisons who were assessed separately in order to provide estimates of literacy for the incarcerated population.

By comparing results from 1992 and 2003, NAAL provides the first indicator in a decade of the nation’s progress in adult literacy. NAAL also provides information on adults’ literacy performance and related background characteristics to researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and the general public.


To (1) evaluate the English language literacy skills of adults (age 16 and older) living in households or prisons in the United States; (2) relate the literacy skills of the nation’s adults to a variety of demographic characteristics and explanatory variables; and (3) compare the results with those from the 1992 NALS.


NAAL includes a number of components that capture the breadth of adult literacy in the United States: the Background Questionnaire helps identify the relationships between adult literacy and selected demographic and background characteristics; the Prison Component assesses the literacy skills of adults in federal and state prisons; the State Assessment of Adult Literacy (SAAL) gives statewide estimates of literacy for states participating in the state-level assessment; the Health Literacy Component introduces the first-ever national assessment of adults’ ability to use their literacy skills in understanding health-related materials and forms; the Fluency Addition to NAAL (FAN) measures basic reading skills by assessing adults’ ability to decode, recognize words, and read with fluency; the Adult Literacy Supplemental Assessment (ALSA) provides information on the ability of the least literate adults to identify letters and numbers and to comprehend simple prose and documents; and the main assessment offers a picture of the general literary (i.e., prose, document and quantitative literary) of the adults who passed the core literary tasks.

Background Questionnaire. The 2003 NAAL Background Questionnaire collected data in a variety of background categories; it obtained valuable background information not collected in the 1992 survey. The questionnaire served three purposes:

  • to provide descriptive data on respondents;
  • to enhance understanding of the factors that are associated with literacy skills used at home, at work, or in the community; and
  • to allow for the reporting of changes over time.

The questionnaire was orally administered to every participant by an interviewer who used a computer-assisted personal interview (CAPI) system. Unlike the 1992 NALS, in which the background questions were read aloud from a printed questionnaire, in 2003, interviewers read the questions from laptop computer screens and entered the responses directly into the computer. CAPI then selected the next question based on responses to prior questions. Because the questions were targeted, a respondent did not answer all of the background questions (i.e., inapplicable questions were skipped). The questionnaire took about 28 minutes to complete.

The background questionnaire used in SAAL was the same as that used in NAAL. However, a separate questionnaire was administered for the prison component in order to address issues of particular relevance to the prison population.


Prison Component. The 2003 NAAL Prison component assesses the literacy skills and proficiencies of the U.S. adult prison population. In the 2003 assessment, approximately 1,200 adults participated, from 107 prisons (including 12 federal prisons) in 31 states.

Key features:

  • provides demographic and performance data for the prison population, in comparison with the main NAAL household study of the general adult population;
  • reports results that are useful to policymakers and practitioners concerned with literacy and education in correctional settings; and
  • guides corrections and education professionals in the development of more effective literacy and adult education programs for prison inmates.

The principal aim of the 2003 NAAL prison component is to provide comprehensive information on the literacy and background of the U.S. adult prison population to policymakers and practitioners in order to enhance adult education in our nation’s prisons and improve incarcerated adults’ ability to function and achieve their goals in the general society, in the workplace, at home, and in the community–upon their release from prison.

State Assessment of Adult Literacy (SAAL). The SAAL is an assessment of adult literacy within a participating state. Conducted in conjunction with the 2003 NAAL data collection, SAAL collected additional data within the six participating states: Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, and Oklahoma.

Key features:

SAAL provides participating states with individually- tailored reports that offer:

  • more in-depth analysis of a state’s literacy, by augmenting the state’s sample with the national sample;
  • state and national comparisons;
  • expanded background information on population groups;
  • state-level scoring for FAN, ALSA, and the Health Literacy Component;
  • estimates by demographic and other characteristics of interest; and
  • trend data (for New York), because it participated in both the 1992 and 2003 assessments.


Health Literacy Component. The 2003 NAAL is the first large-scale national assessment in the United States to contain a component designed specifically to measure health literacy—the ability to use literacy skills to read and understand written health-related information encountered in everyday life. The Health Literacy Component establishes a baseline against which to measure progress in health literacy in future assessments.

The NAAL health literacy report—The Health Literacy of America’s Adults: Results From the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (Kutner et al. 2007)—provides first-hand information on the status of the health literacy of American adults age 16 and older. Results are reported in terms of the four literacy performance levels—below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient—with examples of the types of health literacy tasks that adults at each level may be able to perform.

Key features:

  • reports on the health literacy skills of target audiences;
  • sheds light on the relationship between health literacy and background variables, such as educational attainment, age, race/ethnicity, adults’ sources of information about health issues, and health insurance coverage;
  • examines how health literacy is related to prose, document, and quantitative literacy;
  • provides information that may be useful in the development of effective policies and customized programs that address deficiencies in health literacy skills; and
  • guides the development of health information tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of target audiences.

Fluency Addition to NAAL (FAN). FAN examines components of oral reading fluency that the main NAAL does not assess. Using speech-recognition software, FAN measures adults’ ability to decode, recognize words, and read with fluency.

Key features:

  • establishes a basic reading skills scale;
  • identifies, for the first time, the relationship between basic reading skills and selected background characteristics, as well as performance on the main NAAL, Health Literacy Component, and prison component; and
  • provides a baseline for measuring future changes in the levels and distribution of oral fluency over time.

Ultimately, FAN can improve our understanding of the skill differences between adults who are able to perform relatively challenging tasks and adults who lack basic reading skills. Such information will prove most useful to researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. For instance, adult education providers can use FAN results to develop and offer instruction and courseware that will better address the skill sets of the least literate adults. Likewise, policymakers can use FAN results to support the creation and improvement of programs serving adults with lower literacy skills.


Adult Literacy Supplemental Assessment (ALSA). Low levels of literacy are likely to limit life chances and may be related to social welfare issues, including poverty, incarceration, and preventive health care. Given this, it has become increasingly important for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to understand the literacy skills and deficits of the least literate adults.

ALSA is designed to assess the basic reading skills of the least literate adults. The 1992 NALS lacked a similar component. Because the least literate adults were unable to complete the 1992 assessment due to literacy-related complications (e.g., difficulty reading and writing in English; mental or learning disabilities), the 1992 NALS provided little information on these respondents.

Key features:

  • enhances our understanding of the basic reading skills of the least-literate adults;
  • identifies relationships between ALSA scores and selected background characteristics of adults;
  • reports results for appropriate demographic groups (e.g., Black, Hispanic, and other racial/ethnic groups; ESL adults; the prison population);
  • describes relationships between the performance of ALSA participants and main NAAL participants on the FAN oral reading tasks; and
  • provides a baseline for measuring future changes in the levels and distribution of the least literate adults’ basic reading skills over time.

Participants who scored low on the core screening questions (see “Assessment Design”) were given ALSA instead of the main assessment.


The Main Assessment. NAAL main assessment reports a separate score for each of three literacy areas: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy.

Prose literacy refers to the knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks—that is, to search, comprehend, and use continuous texts. Prose examples include editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials.

Document literacy refers to knowledge and skills needed to perform document tasks—that is, to search, comprehend, and use continuous texts. Document examples include job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and drug or food labels.

Quantitative literacy refers to the knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks—that are, to identify and perform computations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials. Examples include balancing a check book, computing a tip, completing and order form, or determining the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement.


The 2003 NAAL results are comparable to those of the 1992 NALS, and for young adults 21 to 25 years old, to the 1985 young adult literacy assessment.

Data Availability

NAAL data files are available at