Understanding the Basic Reading Skills of U.S. Adults: Reading Components in the PIAAC Literacy Survey

This report breaks down the results of the 2011 PIAAC Survey, which assessed the cognitive and workplace skills needed for success in the 21st-century global economy.
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John Sabatini
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Educational Testing Service
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The results of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey paint a troubling portrait of the literacy skills of adults in the United States. The survey included a direct assessment of skills and was conducted in 23 countries with nationally representative samples of adults ages 16 through 65. Assessed were cognitive and workplace skills needed for success in the 21st-century global economy. In a report entitled Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says, prepared by the OECD at the request of the U.S. Department of Education, it was found that the skills of adults in the United States have remained relatively unchanged in the decade since the previous report, while other countries have been showing improvements, especially among adults with low basic skills.

The ability to read fluently and for understanding—to be able to learn from text—is perhaps the most important foundational skill for U.S. adult citizens' health, well-being, and social and economic advancement. It is a gateway to lifelong learning, education, and training. With the emergence of the Internet and social networking (which operate primarily through the written word), reading literacy provides control over an immeasurable, readily accessible library of the world's knowledge, as well as the ability to communicate with friends, family, and employers. While the digital revolution has increased the prevalence of and, access to, visual/aural media, written text—whether on paper or screen—continues to be an omnipresent currency of communication and commerce, except for adults who continue to struggle to read.

Adults who have trouble reading, using mathematics, solving problems, and using technology are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs in the 21st-century workforce. The situation is perhaps most dire for those at the lowest level of reading literacy skills, because limited literacy skill reduces their access to print-based training and educational opportunities that could be used to enhance their social and workforce skills. Low literacy adults are not necessarily isolated, thanks to the ever-present visual media and communications available. However, their potential is limited because they cannot use printed media to learn, grow their knowledge, and seek opportunities. Interpersonally, it is often painfully obvious to adults when they cannot read well, as it also is to the casual observer. When confronted with text and a task, they can be observed puzzling and lingering for longer than proficient readers do when performing the same literacy activity.

International surveys have consistently documented percentages of adults who score at or below Level 1 on the reading literacy proficiency scale, with international averages at 3.3% and 12.2% for Below Level 1 and Level 1, respectively, in the most recent survey. Before the PIAAC 2011 survey, however, essentially all that one could infer about the literacy skills of adults below Level 1 was that they could not consistently perform accurately on the easiest literacy tasks on the survey. One could not estimate what literacy tasks they could do successfully, if any.

One primary reason for introducing a battery of reading component tasks to the PIAAC literacy assessment was the desire to have richer information from which to draw implications for policy, as well as for learning and instruction, for adults who score at or below Level 1 in literacy proficiency. What do we know about the reading literacy profiles of adults with low literacy scores in the United States in comparison to other countries? What are the underlying reading skills of adults below Level 1 proficiency? Do they truly have no literacy skills at all? For adults at Level 1, is there evidence of mastery of foundational component skills?

Policy makers and educators can benefit from understanding what kinds of skills that adults bring to learning programs, because the learning needs of those with very low skill levels may differ from those with more intermediate levels of skills,8 as perhaps best explained in the seminal work of Jean Chall. Chall distinguished learning to read—that is, the mastery of decoding, word recognition, and reading fluency—from reading to learn or to do—that is, using text to build one's knowledge or accomplish specific goals. Adults at or below Level 1 have needs at both levels. To build fluent, efficient foundational reading skills may require direct knowledge and skill instruction, as well as practice with applying skills to build up fluency of application in literacy contexts at home or in the workplace.

The most elementary applied literacy tasks of the general, cognitive survey (for example, locating a single piece of information in a paragraph of text), while easy relative to the other tasks, are not the most basic, foundational tasks that indicate reading literacy skill. Also, they are not aligned with evidence-based instructional approaches typically used when teaching beginning readers. Component reading literacy tasks, on the other hand, assess the foundational skills that enable prose literacy comprehension. Such tasks can probe knowledge of the alphabet, decoding, word recognition, word meaning knowledge, sentence comprehension, and basic passage reading.

The introduction of reading component tasks in the 2011 PIAAC survey provided a rich opportunity to better understand adults with low literacy proficiency scores in the United States in comparison to similar populations in other countries. Reading components results help us to understand what adults with scores at or below Level 1 can and cannot do. Can they identify the meaning of high-frequency vocabulary words when they appear in print? Can they evaluate the meaning of single sentences? Can they read for local meaning in simple passages? That is, what is the range and variation in foundational skills among the lowest scoring adults in a country? These are the questions addressed in this report.

In sum, the reading components tasks in PIAAC were designed to complement the applied literacy tasks in order to provide a richer sense of what adults scoring at or below Level 1 can and cannot do when engaging and processing basic written words, sentences, and passages. In the remainder of the report, we describe in more detail a) the reading component measures, including the theoretical and empirical rationale for adopting this framework; b) the results in a select set of countries that participated in the PIAAC survey; and c) implications of those findings for policy and practice.

What the Experts Say: 

This report provides an excellent overview of recent and current knowledge regarding how adults with very basic level reading skills acquire reading proficiency. The PIAAC was designed in ways to provide new input on how policy makers and instructors might significantly improve how adults learn to read and read to learn. Although more research is recommended, the report suggests very "doable" ways in which the US might begin to close the gap that exists in the nation's ability to match the progress being made in other parts of the world who are develping literate and functional adult models to lead their futures.

Many practitioners might find the section, “Discussions and Implications for Policy and Practice,” the most relevant. There are several findings that are especially interesting, above and beyond those related to component-specific instruction:
1) Experience with computers correlated with higher literacy scores. Programs might find this data useful in advocating in fundraising for technology in their classrooms.
2) Sabatini suggests more exploration is needed of the role that digital technologies might take in providing instructional support both while low-level students are in the classroom and after they leave—or even if they never show up. The immersive literacy experiences provided by computers and other technologies might be the most comparable (in intensity) to a K-12 education for adults; thus, getting students connected and engaged with technology as soon as they enter our classrooms should be considered a priority. That way, adult learners can continue to learn even when they leave our programs.
3) The report proposes contextualized instruction as an approach likely to be successful in helping adult learners develop the reading components.

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