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About Literacy

Back to Literacy

Shasta Literacy Program - www.shastalibraries.orgThe difference between low literacy and illiteracy

Low literacy doesn’t mean someone can’t read “cat” and “bat” and signs documents with an “X.” In fact, an adult may successfully read text for which they have background knowledge but struggle with basic informational text about unfamiliar topics.

Literacy exists on a spectrum. It’s not necessarily something one has or doesn’t, which makes it difficult to identify even for those closest to the person who struggles with it.

How to identify low literacy

It is difficult to identify adults with low literacy because

  • many have developed coping mechanisms to mask it AND
  • most poor readers consider their reading skills as adequate. In one survey, 66-75% of adults in the very lowest skill level described themselves as being able to read or write English “well” or “very well.”

The following behaviors may indicate low literacy if observed consistently over a length of time:

  • They avoid reading. Someone who consistently waves off written text as unimportant (such as news, magazines, brochures), or chooses activity over reading may struggle with comprehension and understanding, a critical component of literacy.
  • They have others complete forms for them, saying they are too busy or forgot their glasses.
  • They take what they read literally, missing abstract connections and nuances of text. In other words, they see only what they see, perhaps fluently reading one word at a time but missing implied conclusions and big ideas.

Types of literacy

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy defines three types of literacy:

  • Prose - the ability to read news stories, brochures and instructional materials
  • Document - the ability to comprehend job applications, payroll forms, maps, drug and food labels
  • Quantitative - balancing a checkbook, calculating tips or completing order forms

According to the World Literacy Foundation, functional illiteracy means an individual may have basic reading, writing and numerical skills but cannot apply them to accomplish tasks necessary to make informed choices and participate fully in everyday life. Such tasks may include:

  • Reading a medicine label
  • Reading a nutritional label on a food product
  • Balancing a checkbook
  • Filling out a job application
  • Reading and responding to correspondence in the workplace
  • Filling out a home loan application
  • Reading a bank statement
  • Comparing the cost of two items to work out which one offers the best value
  • Working out the correct change at a supermarket.

Poor literacy also limits a person’s ability to engage in activities that require either critical thinking or a solid base of literacy and numeracy skills. Such activities may include:

  • Understanding government policies and voting in elections
  • Using a computer to do banking or interact with government agencies
  • Calculating the cost and potential return of a financial investment
  • Using a computer or smartphone to look up and access up-to-date news and information; communicate with others via email or social networking sites; or shop online, read product reviews and user feedback and get the best prices for goods and services
  • Completing a higher education degree or training
  • Analyzing sophisticated media and advertising messages, particularly for get-rich-quick scams
  • Assisting children with homework.

How you can help the adults in your life whom you suspect to have low literacy

  • Remember that adults with low literacy come with talents and experience and are capable of learning.
  • Focus on results rather than deficits. Adults who improve literacy may experience greater independence and higher self-esteem.
  • Gently suggest adult tutoring as a strategy for improving job opportunities and higher earning potential.
  • Suggest the library as a source for free tutoring in reading, comprehension, basic math, financial and health literacy.
  • Learn more. Read this article by the Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal: Negotiating Literacy Identity in the Face of Perceived Illiteracy: What Counts as Being Literate as an Adult and Who Decides?

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For more information about Shasta Public Libraries’ adult learning opportunities, call 530-245-7237 or email