Adult Literacy

As societies become increasingly advanced, adults are expected to use information in more complex ways and to maintain and enhance their literacy skills through lifelong learning. Literacy skills are critical not only for personal achievement, but also for positive social, educational and economic outcomes in societies around the world. ETS’s literacy research focuses on areas that include:

  • Basic reading skills — the underlying reading skills that successful readers use to achieve higher levels of literacy
  • Prose and document literacy — the skills and knowledge needed to understand and use information found in prose and document materials including newspapers, magazines, manuals, forms, schedules, charts and graphs
  • Numeracy — the ability to use, apply, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas
  • Information and communication technology literacy — the ability to use digital technologies to function in a knowledge society
  • Health literacy — the ability to understand and use health-related information

ETS's literacy research takes place both in the United States and internationally. Much of our U.S.-based literacy research takes place through our Philadelphia Applied Research Office. Research outside the United States involves large-scale adult surveys designed to meet policy needs associated with the growing interest in literacy as human capital. One current project is the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which ETS manages on behalf of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Featured Publications

These are some recent or significant ETS-authored publications on the subject of literacy:

Relationships Among Reading Skills of Adults with Low Literacy
J.P. Sabatini, Y. Sawaki, J.R. Shore, & H.S. Scarborough (2010)
Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 122–138.

In this study, researchers used a method known as confirmatory factor analysis to examine the relationship between literacy and several component reading skills (e.g., word recognition, fluency, language comprehension and vocabulary skills) in adults. View full abstract or order this report from the publisher.

Basic Reading Skills and the Literacy of the America's Least Literate Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) Supplemental Studies
J. Baer, M. Kutner, & J. Sabatini (2009)
National Center For Education Statistics Report No. NCES 2009481

The 2003 NAAL assessed the English literacy skills of U.S. adults. This report focuses on results from the supplemental basic reading skills measures given to all adults in the survey, as well as a special battery of assessment given to the least literate subpopulation. View the full abstract or download this report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Preparing for an epidemic of limited health literacy: Weathering the perfect storm
R.M. Parker, M.S. Wolf, & I. Kirsch (2008)
Journal of General Internal Medicine, Vol. 23, No. 8, pp. 1273–1276

Research has demonstrated strong links between literacy and health. ETS's recent report America's Perfect Storm considers the great risks the United States faces as a result of declining adult literacy, shifting demographics and a changing economy. It is essential to understand how these changes will impact health care. View the full abstract or order this report from the publisher.

America's Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation's Future
I. Kirsch, H. Braun, K. Yamamoto, & A. Sum (2007)
ETS Policy Information Report

This report looks at the convergence of three powerful sociological and economical forces that are changing the future of the United States: substantial disparities in skill levels (reading and math), seismic economic changes (widening wage gaps), sweeping demographic shifts (less education, lower skills). View the full abstract or download this report.

Adult Learners in a Changing America
I. Kirsch, M. Lennon, & C. Tamassia (2007)
in B. Guzzetti (Editor), Literacy for the New Millennium, Vol. 4, pp. 91–122
Learn more about the multi-volume series of books that includes this ETS-authored article.

Digital Transformation: A Framework for ICT Literacy
International ICT Literacy Panel (2002)

This report describes the work of a panel that ETS convened in January 2001 to study the growing importance of existing and emerging information and communication technologies (ICT) and their relationship to literacy. The panel was made up of international experts from education, government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), labor and the private sector. View the full abstract or download this report.

Reading for Change: Performance and Engagement Across Countries
I. Kirsch et al. (2002)
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

This report looks closely at the reading results of the first Program in International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. It shows reading literacy levels of students aged 15, in 32 countries, in terms of how well they can use written materials to meet the challenges of the real world and to become lifelong learners. View the full abstract or download this report from the publisher.

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