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NAAL - National Assessment of Adult Literacy

In the past, adult literacy was simply defined as the ability to read and write a simple sentence. This belief has evolved in modern times to include the capacity to read, write, speak, and listen effectively. Literate adults should not only be able to write and read written materials, but they should also be able to understand and analyze written and spoken words and to use language adequately for communication purposes. While a small percentage of adults in the United States do possess strong literacy skills, a disturbingly larger percentage do not. In this, Americans are not alone. An estimated 20% of the world's population is fully illiterate and, even though the illiteracy rate is decidedly higher in undeveloped nations, adult illiteracy exists to some degree in every country.

In 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) sponsored a comprehensive reading assessment of American adult literacy skills. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, also known as NAAL, is a current and continuing measure of adult literacy statistics that is frequently used by researchers and policymakers. Nineteen thousand adults were interviewed and given a reading assessment in all fifty states and the District of Columbia in both homes and in prisons. Components of the NAAL addressed issues such as background and demographics, state level reading assessment, understanding of health-related documents, literary competence of prison inmates, and fluency measures. After completion, this massive assessment revealed that only thirteen percent of American adults are proficiently literate, most of whom hold a college degree, while the majority merely have intermediate literacy skills. However, the population of adults with basic or below basic skills total forty-three percent according to NAAL research, which is far higher than those with proficient skills.

In fact, the term "functionally illiterate" is frequently used to describe the estimated twenty percent of adults in the US who cannot perform basic tasks involving printed materials. Functional illiterates may have trouble filling out a job application, using a computer, understanding written instructions, reading a contract, and many other related tasks. Many of these citizens are not able to hold a job, and those who do work regularly have difficulty with occupational tasks and career advancement. Illiteracy, whether complete or functional, can affect many aspects of life, including employment options, financial well being, and education opportunities, and it usually prevents individuals from fully functioning in society.

The United States is currently ranked tenth out of seventeen competitive countries according to literacy scores, but the National Institute for Literacy is working to change that. Established in 1991 along with the National Literacy Act (NLA), the agency was created in an effort to improve the literary skills of Americans by enhancing and broadening literacy support for all ages. The literacy center forms fundamental reading programs, sets forth strong literacy practices and policies, and develops innovative support tools from scientifically-based research. Furthermore, the institute provides important services that are specifically targeted to the improvement of adult literacy and education.