Beginning with the U.S.-focused National Adult Literacy Survey in 1992, population assessments of the literacy skills found among adults have increasingly underscored that gaps exist between the skills adults have and the demands imposed on them by their environments. From early on, these findings have attracted attention from actors within the public health and health care sectors, who have recognized the potential implications of this mismatch for health outcomes. A unique attribute of adult literacy population assessments that makes their findings particularly applicable to the field of health literacy is that they examine how people use materials found in everyday life in order to accomplish everyday tasks. For example, the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) assessed individuals’ ability to perform tasks such as reading drug and food labels and filling out patient information forms at doctors’ office. The methodology used in these assessments calls for rating all materials for both their levels of complexity an their levels of difficulty. This is explained by Irwin Kirsch in his monograph “The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS): Understanding What Was Measured.” A link to this resource is provided at the bottom of this page.
As this field of study has developed over the past few decades, adult literacy population assessments have become more comprehensive. Collaborations between OECD countries have allowed for the production of international population assessments that compare the literacy skills of adult populations living in different countries. In addition, adult literacy population assessments have also been adapted to account for changes to the literacy demands placed on individuals by their environments as new technologies emerge and modern economies involve.
Key adult literacy population assessments are included below, with the most recent assessments listed at the top. For each assessment, the full report is listed first, with subsequent analyses, such as those performed for specific countries or population groups included below.
Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Findings
OECD Publishing. (2013). The Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) was designed to assess how adults from 24 different countries compare on key skills that are increasingly demanded by today’s modern economy and technology-rich environments. These include skills related to literacy, reading components, numeracy and problem solving.
U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). The National Center for Education Statistics published this report to assess how the U.S. adult population compared to other OECD nations on the measures included in the PIAAC assessment.
National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) Findings
US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. (2005). The NAAL was a nationally representative, comprehensive assessment of English literacy conducted among American adults age 16 and older. Sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the 2003, results obtained from the NAAL were then compared to those obtained in the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) to provide an indicator of how U.S. adult literacy had changed over the course of a decade.
Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS) Findings
Statistics Canada. OECD Publishing. (2005).This report presented findings on literacy skills from seven countries, focusing on a new iteration of adult literacy surveys that included measures of problem solving skills and numeracy.
International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) Findings
OECD Publishing. (2000). This IALS report was produced through an international collaboration and includes survey results from over 20 countries collected through three rounds of data collection, which began in 1994 and concluded in 1998. It allows for comparisons to be made between the levels and distributions of literacy skills among adult populations in different countries.
Educational Testing Services, Statistics and Research Division; Center for Global Assessment. (2002). This report compares U.S. results on the International Adult Literacy Survey with those of 20 other nations. While U.S. adults performed in the average range for participating high-income countries, comparative findings indicate greater disparities in the U.S. than in other countries, indicating a possible unequal divide in the distribution of economic and civic benefits.
National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) Findings
U.S. Department of Education. (1993). This report focused on data from the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey on the English literacy skill levels of U.S. adults. Findings are based on an in-home assessment of people’s use of everyday materials. Findings indicate that about half of U.S. adults have difficulty using print materials with accuracy and consistency.
U.S. Department of Education. (1994). The NALS evaluated a sample of inmates in federal and state prisons. Incarcerated individuals were much more likely than adults in the total population to score in lower levels on all three literacy scales.
U.S. Department of Education. (1996). This NALS report assessed the literacy skills of adults age 60 and older in order to yield insights into how their literacy needs could be better met. It found that, although older adults are a heterogeneous group in terms of their literacy levels, low literacy is a significant problem for a large proportion of adults in this age group.
I. Kirsch. Educational Testing Services, Center for Global Assessment; December, (2001). This paper provides a thorough explanation of the framework used to develop the tasks on the IALS. The framework is comprised of six parts: Defining Literacy, Organizing the Domain, Task Characteristics, Identifying and Operationalizing Variables, validating Variables and Building an Interpretive Scheme. The author provides a clear explanation of regression analyses that identify and verify variables associated with performance on the literacy tasks in the IALS.