Functional Literacy in the U.S.

Basic Reading Skills and the Literacy of America’s Least Literate Adults
Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)
Supplemental Studies
February 2009

This document provides loads of information about adults with low literacy.  Instead of completing the main literacy assessment, adults who were  unable to successfully answer the core literacy tasks completed a supplemental assessment, which gathered information about their letter-reading, word-reading, word-identification, and basic comprehension skills. The supplemental assessment used common products—such as a carbonated beverage can or a box of cold medicine—to evaluate the skills of low literacy adults.

The assessment measured functional literacy, defined in the document as "using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential" and attempted to answer the questions:
What basic functional literacy tasks can adults at the lowest level of literacy perform?
How do key subgroups, especially native versus nonnative English speakers, differ in their ability to perform these most basic functional tasks?

The facts and figures are fascinating.  Among other factors, low educational attainment, multiple disabilities, and poverty are commonalities shared by many adults with low literacy.


Concepts Without Language?

This picture is a visual representation of Jim Cummins' construct of Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP).  CUP refers to the interdependence of concepts, skills, and linguistic knowledge found in a central processing system. While both languages are outwardly distinct (the two icebergs above surface level), they are supported by shared concepts and knowledge derived from learning, experience, and the cognitive and linguistic abilities of the learner (  As I viewed this diagram, I thought of its connection to Robert Pattison's discussion of Wild Boy of Aveyron in On Literacy: The Politics of the Word from Homer to the Age of Rock. Patisson notes, "The Wild Boy possessed some essential humanity beyond the uses of consciousness and language" and cites as his example a time the boy showed indignation when unjustly punished, thereby (and, explicitly in the text, thereafter) suggesting the possibility of transcending realities.  While Pattison and Cummins look to opposite directions, they both move toward the idea of the existence of shared concepts that can be outwardly expressed through language.

The point that is not to be missed here, whether expressed as height or depth, is that common concepts can exist without language, therefore they can exist before language.  Cummins' construct specifically focuses on acquisition of additional language(s); it uses the linguistic abilities acquired in a first language in conceptualizing acquisition of another.  Temporarily setting aside his use of linguistic abilities, we are left with cognition and knowledge derived from learning and experience as shared concepts.  So a blind mute person, for example, could learn in and experience the world as could any other person but be without the means to communicate such occurrences. 

Patisson uses the example of Helen Keller to support the opposing idea that language is the gateway to consciousness and humanity.  He quotes from Keller's autobiographical essays, The World I Live In, including the passage,
So I was not conscious of any change or process going on in my brain when my teacher began to instruct me. I merely felt keen delight in obtaining more easily what I wanted by means of the finger motions she taught me: When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think.
According to the text, for Wild Boy, humanity exists without language; for Keller, language is the beginning of humanity. I read the passage and see further support of the notion of concepts preceding language.  Keller was happy in the excerpt above to achieve the means to more easily obtain things she wanted.  So, prior to acquiring language, Keller knew what she wanted and struggled to communicate her desires; she was already thinking, aware, cognizant. When Keller's gains consciousness, she gains more than awareness or cognition; she acquires metacognition, she learns to think about her thinking. (But that's a topic for another post.)  Keller says that she needed language to think but shows that she held thoughts in mind before she acquired the ability to express them. 



The first months of this blog will center on readings and conversations generated from my final required graduate class.  Shortly, I will earn a master's degree in English: Language and Literacy from CUNY's City College of New York. In the class entitiled Theories and Models of Literacy and in this blog we will explore the many facets of literacy including theories, current debate, and the ways in which literacy impacts one's daily life.
I'll post my reactions to readings, quotables from the readings and from my peers during discussions, and linkages I find to the rest of my life...books, movies, entertaining commercials, whatever comes to mind.  Practice your multiple literacies with responses of your own and we'll create knowledge sharing a community!