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Adult Literacy

In its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, more than 50 years ago, the United Nations declared literacy to be a human right. This article reviews factors that cause illiteracy and resources for those needing assistance with adult literacy.

One-fifth of people 16 years of age and older are not literate. To focus attention on the 861 million adults and 113 million children who do not have access to literacy, the United Nations declared a Literacy Decade from 2003-2012 to focus particularly on adult literacy. Definitions of literacy are different in different parts of the world, but the US Congress defined literacy in 1991 in the National Literacy Act as follows:

“An individual's ability to read, write, and speak in English, and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals, and developing one's knowledge and potential.”

As you may imagine from the definition, literacy is essential for many jobs and for participation in society as a citizen. Basic tasks such as shopping, helping children with homework, following travel directions, and finding out the news depend to some degree on literacy. Preparing to vote and voting both depend heavily on literacy.

Causes of Illiteracy

There are a variety of factors that may have influenced an person’s life in ways that lead to his or her not yet becoming a literate adult. Some of the possible factors include:

  • Cultural Issues: A person from a home in which reading and/or schooling is not a high priority or in which reading materials are not readily available (for whatever reason) may be at risk for illiteracy. Children who cannot focus on school as a result of poverty (insufficient heat, illness, not enough food) and/or trauma at home may not learn to read.
  • Language Issues: A person whose first language is not English may have a more difficult time becoming literate in English.
  • School Issues: Poor instruction can contribute to illiteracy.
  • Continuity Issues: The literacy instruction of someone who moves many times may be disrupted.
  • Learning Issues: A person with a learning disability may have a difficult time acquiring literacy skills.
  • Family Issues: Parental literacy helps foster children’s literacy.

Adult Literacy Assistance

Tutoring and other assistance for adults who wish to pursue literacy is available through a number of organizations. For example,

• LiteracyLink® is a joint project of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), KET Adult Education, the National Center on Adult Literacy (NCAL), and the Kentucky Department of Education. The website provides materials for teachers and learners, including special sections for the high school equivalency program GED and pre-GED, workplace skills, and English as a Second Language learners.

• The National Institute for Literacy and Partners (NILP) has literacy resources and a search to find adult and young adult literacy programs by location in the US. Visitors can specify their interest in reading and writing, math, GED, or English as a second language. The online network is called Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS).

• The National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) focuses on the literacy not just of individuals but of families. They also provide a search for programs.

There are also regional literacy centers as well as local ones. The Western/Pacific branch of LINCS hosts a web resource called Literacy Net. Their materials are available to any visitor, in or out of the area.

Also worth noting is Artists for Literacy, a group of artists whose goal is to promote support for literacy and develop learning tools that foster it in innovative ways.

Written by Mary Elizabeth