Types of Literacy

Based on numerous research studies, ETS has developed principled frameworks that emphasize literacy as a set of practical tools to facilitate work on the job, at home, and around the community and that use real-world literacy tasks. The frameworks provide for the measurement of literacy along these proficiency scales, or types of literacy.


Prose literacy measures how well you understand and use information found in newspapers, magazines, novels, brochures, manuals or flyers. Most adults use prose literacy to answer questions, to learn how to do something or for entertainment. For example, you are using prose literacy skills when you:

  • learn about quitting smoking from a brochure at your health clinic
  • read a story or poem with your child
  • join in the readings at a wedding or other ceremonies or events
  • give your child medication as directed on the package
  • read a newspaper or magazine to keep up on local and national events


Document literacy measures how well you find and use information in forms, schedules, charts, graphs and other tables of information. Most adults use document literacy to find information they need or want or to give information to someone else. For example, you are using document literacy skills when you:

  • fill out a job application form or complete a credit card application
  • use a bus or train schedule to retrieve specific information
  • find out today's weather using a weather map
  • use the TV guide to find the time that your favorite TV show starts
  • sign a form giving permission for your child to go on a school field trip
  • compare items in the warehouse to those listed on the inventory sheet
  • retrieve information from a graph or chart


Quantitative literacy measures how well you can use numbers found in ads, forms, flyers, articles or other printed materials. Quantitative literacy is a little different from prose and document literacy because in addition to using a text to identify needed information, you also have to add, subtract, multiply, divide or do other math to get the information you need.

For example, you are using quantitative literacy skills when you:

  • figure out how much commission you earned last month in your sales job
  • add up how much you save when you use coupons to buy two items at a store
  • calculate a 15 percent tip at a restaurant
  • figure out the monthly cost of the milk program at your child's school
  • keep score for your bowling team
  • follow the instructions on a can of paint to calculate how many cans you need to paint a room

Health Skills

Health literacy measures how well you can understand and use health-related information. Materials included in this measure are judged to be related to one of five activities associated with where and why people take health-related actions. These include actions that involve health promotion; health protection; disease prevention; health care and maintenance; and accessing needed services or navigating the health-care system.

For example, you are using health literacy skills when you:

  • follow instructions on how to take a medication
  • read a brochure to determine your medical benefits
  • use information on food or product labels to calculate nutritional content
  • see a notice and determine whether or not you should have a screening or inoculation
  • fill out a benefit application or patient history form
  • read an article about diet or nutrition
  • read a letter summarizing medical test results