Getting To Know Your Readers

Part 2. The Civilian Literacy Studies

by William H. DuBay

The first thing to know about your readers is that they have different reading skills and habits. In the last issue of Plain Language at Work, we looked at the military studies of literacy. They showed how reading skills affect job performance. In this issue, we look at civilian studies of adult literacy in the U.S. These studies show that many adults in the U.S. have limited reading skills, which can affect their standard of living and quality of life.

The Chicago Study of 1937

Guy Buswell of the University of Chicago surveyed 1,000 adults with different levels of education. He measured skills in reading items such as food ads, telephone directories, and movie ads. He also tested their comprehension of paragraphs and vocabulary.

Buswell found that reading skills improve as years of education increase. He suggested that an important role of education is to guide readers to read more, and that reading more leads to greater reading skill. In turn, this may lead one to seek more education.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress of 1970-71

This survey tested the performance of students 9, 13, and 17 years old and adults 26 to 35 years old on 21 different tasks. The results showed for the first time how reading skill improves as children grow up, attend school, and become adults.

The Louis Harris Survey of 1970

The Louis Harris polling organization surveyed adults representing a cross section of the U.S. population. The subjects filled out five common application forms, including an application for a driver's license and a Medicaid application.

The poll was the first of many to show that many U.S. citizens have difficulty with filling out forms. The Medicaid form was difficult, with only 54 percent of those with an 8th grade education or less getting 90-100 percent correct. Even many college-educated adults had trouble completing the Medicaid form.

Adult Functional Reading Study of 1973

This study used household interviews to find out the reading habits of adults. It used a second household sample to assess literacy skills. Over 70 percent of the respondents scored 70 percent correct or better.

As with Buswell's study, both literacy skills and practices correlated closely with education. Book and magazine reading correlated more closely with years of education than did newspaper reading. The adults reported that they spent about 90 minutes a day in reading materials such as forms, labels, signs, bills, and mail.

Adult Performance Level Study of 1971

This study included over 40 common and practical tasks, such as filling out a check, reading the want ads, addressing an envelope, comparing advertised products, filling out a 1040 tax form, reading a tax table, and filling out a Social Security application. Results showed a high correlation between performance on all tasks and one's level of reading skill.

Young Adult Literacy Survey of 1985

This study of young adults 17 to 25 measured reading skill in three areas:

This study used a literacy scoring range of 1 to 500 and the five levels of reading skill defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The following table shows how these levels relate to reading-grade levels:

Reading Levels
Literacy LevelGrade Level
1  Rudimentary 1501.5
2  Basic 2003.6
3  Intermediate 2507.2
4  Adept 30012
5  Advanced 35016+
Table 1. NAEP proficiency levels, literacy scores, and the
estimated reading-grade-level equivalents.

This survey found that only 40 percent of young adults 17 to 25 no longer in high school and 17 years old and in high school read at a 12th-grade level. Large numbers leave high school still reading at the 8th-grade level or lower. The 1990 census showed that 24.8 percent of adults did not graduate from high school.

The National Adult Literacy Survey of 1992

This study by the U.S. Government sampled 26,000 adults representing 191 million adults. The following table shows the percentages of the U.S. adult population with different literacy skills. The reading levels are the same as those shown above in Table 1.

Literacy Skill Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4 Level 5
Prose 21 27 32 17 3
Document 23 28 31 15 3
Quantitative 22 25 31 17 4
Table 2. Percentages of adults in the U.S. in each of the five
NAEP reading levels for each literacy skill.

The data in this table suggest 40 to 44 million adults in the U.S. are in Level 1, defined as "functionally illiterate, not having enough reading skills for daily life." Some 50 million are in Level 2. This means the percentage of adults who struggle at Levels 1 and 2 in the U.S. reaches almost 50 percent.

The Costs of Low Literacy

Adults of different reading skills not only have different worldviews but also different life experiences. Forty-three percent of adults with low-literacy skills live in poverty, 17% receive food stamps, and 70% have no job or part-time job.

Over 60% of factory-line workers have difficulty applying information from a text to a task. Those at Level 1—more than 20% of the population—read at a level far below what is required to earn a living wage. They earn a median income of $240 a week, while those at Level 5 earned $681. Seventy percent of prisoners are in the lowest two levels.

In support of these figures, the number of companies reporting shortages of skilled workers doubled between 1995 and 1998. Ninety percent of Fortune 1000 executives reported that low literacy is hurting productivity and profitability. In one survey, more than half of the responding company representatives said that high school graduates applying for jobs are not literate enough to hire.

Low levels of literacy have caused costly and dangerous mistakes in the workplace. There are other costs in billions of dollars in the workplace resulting from low productivity, poor quality of products and services, mistakes, absenteeism, and lost management time.

The Adult Literacy Survey also confirmed the effects of literacy on health care. Since 1974, when health officials have became aware of the effects of low literacy on health, literacy problems have grown. A more complex health-care system requires better reading skills to negotiate the system and to take more responsibility for self-care. Poor reading skills add an estimated $72 billion annually to the cost of U.S. health care.

Low literacy is not chiefly the problem of immigrants, the elderly, high school dropouts, or people whose first language is not English. Low literacy is a problem that knows no age, education, income levels, or national origins. Most people with low literacy skills were born in this country and have English as their first language.

One solution to the problem of low literacy of adults is more support for adult literacy programs. Workplace literacy programs have cost-effective and lasting results. Another solution is to encourage life-long learning by producing more texts that are written for people of poor reading skills. People stop reading unless they have access to publications written at their level and for their interests.

Literacy Opportunities

The largest group in the 1992 study of adult literacy is in Level 3. Almost a third of adults in the U.S. are in that group, which can be characterized as "basic" or "intermediate" readers. Their reading skills are remarkably similar to those of middle-school students, though their interests may be quite different.

Most organizations ignore the potential of this huge audience. For example, most of the sites on the Internet that feature health, technical, and political information are at the 10th-grade level and up. This means that they are reaching only the top 20% of the adult population. The most popular sources of written news and commentary are also too difficult for most adults to read, as shown in the following table. The reading grade level is based on samples of 4,000 words taken from the front-page news stories.

Periodical Grade Level % of Readers
Boston Globe 12 18%
Los Angeles Times 12 18%
Atlantic Monthly 11 20%
Atlanta Connstitution 11 20%
Cleveland Plain Dealer 11 20%
San Jose Mercury News 11 20%
New Yorker 10 25%
New York Times 10 25%
Washington Post 10 25%
USA Today 10 25%
Harpers 9 30%
Time 9 30%
Reader's Digest 9 30%
Table 3. Reading levels of popular periodicals and the
estimated percentage share of adult readers in the U.S.

Other organizations and companies also fail to address large groups of readers. Even within organizations, documents fail to address staff members with different reading skills. Many workers have difficulty reading—or are unable to read—policies and procedures, warnings, emergency notices, and other corporate publications.

The U.S. literacy studies call for a revolution in communications, one that focuses on our diversified audience. This is the work of plain language, helping your organization meet this challenge.

For more information on national U.S. literacy statistics, go to:

http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/Report2/rep15-01.htm and

Plain Language in the News

Jargon in Information Technology:

Literacy in Beaufort County:

New system for product-and-safety alerts for hospitals:

Ten easy steps to a user-friendly website:

Montana squabble over plain language:

Traffic-light system proposed for labeling foods:

McDonald's new health information:

Spanish literacy classes for seniors:

"Easy reading is damned hard writing."
— Nathaniel Hawthorne