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National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS)

1. Overview

Assesses literacy skills:
  • Prose
  • Document
  • Quantitative
Collects background data:
  • Demographics
  • Education
  • Labor market experiences
  • Income
  • Activities

The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) was initiated to fill the need for accurate and detailed information on the English literacy skills of America’s adults. In accordance with a congressional mandate, it provided the most detailed portrait that has ever been available in the 1990s on the condition of literacy in this nation.

The 1992 NALS is the third assessment of adult literacy funded by the federal government and conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The two previous efforts were (1) the 1985 Young Adult Literacy Assessment, funded as an adjunct to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—see NAEP chapter); and (2) the Department of Labor’s 1990 Workplace Literacy Survey. Building on these two earlier surveys, literacy for NALS is defined along three dimensions—prose, document, and quantitative—designed to capture an ordered set of information-processing skills and strategies that adults use to accomplish a diverse range of literacy tasks encountered in everyday life. The background data collected in NALS provide a context for understanding the ways in which various characteristics are associated with demonstrated literacy skills.

NALS is the first national study of literacy for all adults since the Adult Performance Level Surveys conducted in the early 1970s. It is also the first in-person literacy assessment involving the prison population. A second adult literacy survey, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), was conducted in 2003.


To (1) evaluate the English language literacy skills of adults (16 years 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 1985 Young Adult Literacy Assessment and the 1990 Workplace Literacy Survey.


The 1992 survey consisted of one component that was administered to three different representative samples: a national household sample; supplemental state household samples for 12 states (California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington); and a national sample of federal and state prison inmates. Responses from the national, state, and prison samples were combined to yield the best possible performance estimates.

National Adult Literacy Survey. The 1992 survey assessed the literacy skills of a representative sample of the U.S. adult population using simulations of three kinds of literacy tasks that adults would ordinarily encounter in daily life(prose, document, and quantitative literacy). The data were collected through in-person interviews with adults who were living in households or in federal or state prisons. Adults were defined as individuals 16 years or older for the national and prison samples, and 16 to 64 years of age for the state samples. In addition to the cognitive tasks, the personal interview gathered information on demographic characteristics, language background, educational background, reading practices, and labor market experiences. To ensure comparability across all samples, the literacy tasks assessed were the same for all three samples. Background data varied somewhat between the household and prison samples—labor force questions were irrelevant to prisoners, and questions about criminal behavior and sentences were relevant only to prisoners.


Literacy Assessment. The pool of literacy tasks used to measure adult proficiencies consisted of 165 literacy questions—41 prose, 81 document, and 43 quantitative. To ensure that valid comparisons could be made by linking the scales to those of the 1985 Young Adult Literacy Assessment, 85 tasks from that survey were included in the 1992 survey. An additional 80 new tasks were developed specifically to complement and enhance the original 85 tasks. The literacy tasks administered in NALS varied widely in terms of materials and content. The six major context/content areas were home and family; health and safety; community and citizenship; consumer electronics; work; and leisure and recreation. Each adult was given a subset (about 45) of the total pool of assessment tasks to complete. Each of the tasks extended over a range of difficulty on the three literacy scales. The new tasks were designed to simulate the way in which people use various types of materials and to require different strategies for successful performance.

The responses to the literacy assessment were pooled and reported by proficiency scores, ranging from 0 to 500, on three separate scales, one each for prose, document, and quantitative literacy. By examining the overall characteristics of individuals who performed at each literacy level on each scale, it is possible to identify factors associated with higher or lower proficiency in reading and using prose, document, and quantitative materials.

Background Information. Background information collected for the state and household samples included data on background and demographics—country of birth, languages spoken or read, access to reading materials, size of household, educational attainment of parents, age, race/ethnicity, and marital status; education—highest grade completed in school, current aspirations, participation in adult education classes, and education received outside the country; labor market experiences—employment status, recent labor market experiences, and occupation; income—personal and household; and activities—voting behavior, hours spent watching television, frequency and content of newspaper reading, and use of literacy skills for work and leisure. Respondents from each of the 12 participating states were also asked state-specific questions.

To address issues of particular relevance to the prison population, a separate background questionnaire was developed for the prison sample. This instrument drew questions from the 1991 Survey of Inmates of State Correctional Facilities, sponsored by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. The background questionnaire for the prison population addressed the following major topics: general and language background; educational background and experience; current offenses and criminal history; prison work assignments and labor force participation prior to incarceration; literacy activities and collaboration; and demographic information.


NALS was conducted in 1992. NAAL, a continuation of NALS, was conducted in 2003.

Data Availability

Information on NALS public-use data files is available at