21st-Century Literacy: Libraries Must Lead

By Ellingson, Jo Ann | American Libraries, December 1998 | Go to article overview

21st-Century Literacy: Libraries Must Lead


Ellingson, Jo Ann, American Libraries


LIBRARIES WILL AVOID OBSOLESCENCE IF THEY BECOME LITERACY BROKERS

Will literacy, in all of its guises, be the key to economic viability for both individuals and their communities in the 21st century? There is growing evidence to indicate that it will. Libraries have always been dedicated to lifelong learning. They are easily accessible, offer free access to information in its many formats, and provide a comfortable atmosphere that encourages learning. Literacy programs abound in libraries across the United States, but they may not be enough to meet the increasing need for a literate population.

One of the problems facing librarians and educators alike is the general public's perception that literacy involves low-level basic skills or English as a second language for newly arrived immigrants. In 1991, Congress adopted the National Literacy Act, Section 3 of which states:

"For the purposes of the Act the term 'literacy' means an individual's ability to read, write and speak in English, and to compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals, and develop one's knowledge and potential."

More than just basic skills

Under this new definition, literacy is no longer just basic skills, English as a second language, reading at a specific grade level, or the ability to sign one's name (the historical indicator of literacy). Quite literally, literacy is the term that describes all the skills people need to do their jobs and to function in society.

Ten years ago Workforce 2000, a study published by the Hudson Institute, issued a wake-up call to the country by forecasting the ethnographic changes to be expected in the nation's work force. Among its predictions: The average age of the work force will rise and the pool of young workers entering it will shrink. More women, traditionally less skilled than their male counterparts, will enter the work force. Nonwhites will make up 29% of the new entrants in the labor force. Immigrants will represent their largest share of population and work force growth since the First World War. The study predicted that companies would find it increasingly difficult to find suitable employees, and the number of new low-skilled jobs would drop to nearly 50% of those available in the 1980s.

In 1992, the Educational Testing Service undertook an assessment of literacy (published by the National Center for Education Statistics) for adults age 16 and over that included for the first time prison populations and senior citizens. The National Adult Literacy Survey (see p. 42-42) painted a statistical picture of the adult population's skills in three types of literacy: prose (the ability to understand and use information from texts such as editorials, news stories, and fiction); document (the ability to use information found in job applications, payroll forms, graphs, or transportation schedules); and quantitative (the ability to use math skills to perform tasks such as balancing a checkbook or figuring out a tip). Achievement in each was scored in five levels, level one being the lowest and level five the highest.

The first official report from the survey, Adult Literacy in America, was published in 1993. The results were devastating. Twenty-one to 23% (40-44 million Americans) performed at the lowest prose level. One in four scored in level one for document literacy and slightly more than one in five are at level one in quantitative literacy.

Why is this important, and why should if affect libraries? It is important because 43% of those adults in level one are poor or near-poor, compared to 4% of those in level five. Adults who perform at level five earn two-and-a-half times as much as those in level one. Forty-five percent of those who perform in prose level one have not voted in a state or national election during the previous five years, compared to 11% of those who perform at level five. …

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