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Low Literacy and Public Safety

In December 2005, the U.S. Department of Education released the initial results from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) that was done in 2003. This was the first assessment of the nation's progress in adult English literacy since the 1992 National Adult Literacy Study (NALS).

The assessment measured skills in the following areas:

  • Prose literacy: continuous text arranged in sentences and paragraphs such as news stories and brochures
  • Document literacy: non-continuous text such as job applications, payroll forms, bus schedules, maps, tables, and drug or food labels
  • Quantitative literacy: identifying and performing computations involved in activities such as using a checkbook, computing a tip, completing an order form, or determining the amount of interest on a loan.

Based on their performance, participants were placed into one of four levels. Results indicated that 14% of adults age 16 or older (30 million people) function at the lowest or Below Basic level on prose tasks. They possess only the most simple and concrete literacy skills. At best, these people can complete tasks such as searching a short simple text to find out what a patient is allowed to drink before a medical test. Some can only recognize a few letters, numbers, or common sight words in everyday contexts.

An additional 63 million adults—or 29% of the population—were functioning at the second or Basic level on prose tasks. These people were likely to be able to perform simple everyday activities such as finding information in a pamphlet. But they would be challenged by many of the tasks required in today's job market.

The quantitative or math skills of U.S. adults are even worse. Slightly more than half (55%) of the population had only Basic or Below Basic skills.

For more information about the NAAL, go to http://www.nces.ed.gov/NAAL/.

Having a low reading level also affects a person's ability to understand important usage and safety information daily. Adults with low literacy struggle to understand basic beneficial information that readers take for granted, such as prescription dosages, warning labels on poisonous products and appliance maintenance steps. Unfortunately, even manufacturers' instructions for using smoke alarms are heavily text-based. If a person cannot read or comprehend safety information or a product or appliance's fire safety warnings, he or she is not being reached effectively and may not be taking the necessary actions to reduce the risk of fire at home.

The lack of basic literacy skills presents a significant and compounding barrier to learning and applying fire, emergency readiness and other safety skills. Adults with low literacy are considered to be generally at high risk from fire as a result of several factors, including their inability to read and understand current English-language community safety messages, particularly basic information about fire safety. Research conducted for the Fire Safety Literacy Project showed that most of the fire safety materials in use by fire departments nationally are written at a 6th-11th grade reading level – well beyond what 90 million adults in America can read. Disaster preparedness is an essential skill for every household. Taking the necessary steps to prepare in advance for an emergency first requires access to instruction that is easily understood.

It's helpful to understand more about adults with low literacy. Let's just look at the prose literacy scores:

Income: Literacy levels are highly correlated with income levels. In general, the lower the literacy level, the lower a person's income. NAAL participants scoring at the Below Basic level had median weekly incomes of $432 while people scoring at the highest (or Proficient) earned $975.

Education: As might be expected, people with lower literacy skills tend to have had fewer years of schooling. Of those who did not graduate from high school, 55% fell into the Below Basic level.

Age: People over age 65 had the lowest literacy levels

Race and Ethnic Origin: Although their literacy levels rose between the 1992 and 2003 assessments, 21% of Black adults still fell into the Below Basic level. Among Hispanic adults, 39% of adults fell into this level.

When fire and disaster preparedness safety information are presented in a relevant format that can be understood, read and remembered by adults at all reading levels, safety advocates have a far better chance of achieving their safety goals with all members of the public, including adults with low literacy skills. Everyone in every community deserves to receive the life-saving messages that inspire and motivate personal action to prevent home injury. The Home Safety Literacy Project is helping to make that a reality.

To learn more about the problem of low literacy in America, visit the Web site of the Project partner ProLiteracy Worldwide . You can also take one of the free self-paced mini-courses available at Verizon Literacy Campus, a collaborative project between Verizon Communications, ProLiteracy Worldwide, and the National Center for Family Literacy. If you are interested in making contact with a local literacy partner, do one of the following:

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