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The importance of adult literacy issues in social work practice.

For many reasons, it is not uncommon for some clients to procrastinate, make excuses, or engage in noncompliant behavior in social work interactions. For some clients, however, these responses are an attempt to hide poor literacy skills. There are many indicators of the extent of low literacy in our nation. For example, according to the most recent national assessment of literacy skills, conducted in 2003, nearly 16 percent of the adult population reads and understands at a below basic level of literacy and has difficulty with daily functional reading tasks. Approximately 28 percent of the adult population is at the basic level of literacy and can only perform simple and everyday reading tasks. People with low literacy skills have difficulty with tasks such as identifying a location on a map and calculating the total costs of ordering supplies from a catalog (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.). Other indicators come from sources such as the census. According to the 2000 Census, approximately 23 percent of adults in the United States did not graduate from high school or get a high school equivalency diploma (Lasater & Elliott, 2004). Even with a high school diploma, many individuals read three or four years below their highest grade of completion in school (Hochhauser, 1997). Twenty percent of the adults born in the United States and immigrants who speak English proficiently have only basic skills that are considered insufficient for the workplace (Comings, Reder, & Sum, 2001).

When people with low literacy skills are asked about their ability to read, many report that they can read well. For example, according to reports of the National Adult Literacy Survey a high percentage (66 percent to 75 percent) of adults reading at the lowest literacy skill level described themselves as being able to read "well" or "very well" (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993). Some adult learners in the study reported that they could read well because in their daily lives they are able to read what they need to get along and therefore do not realize how deficient their reading skills truly are. Others were simply providing socially desirable answers. Many individuals with low literacy recoil or become defensive at the mention of anything that might expose their literacy issues, and they often find complicated ways to hide their poor literacy skills. For example, we have worked with students who cannot tell time. Their employers do not realize that this is an issue because the students rely on environmental clues to help them get through the day. Specifically, in the morning, the beginning of a particular television show signals that it is time to leave the house; people leaving their offices in the middle of the day indicates that it is lunch time; and people leaving the office at the end of the day provides clues that the work day is done.

Many people with low reading abilities are ashamed of their circumstances. In a study of patients in acute care at a large public hospital in Atlanta, Parikh and colleagues (1996) found that nearly 40 percent of individuals who reported having low literacy skills admitted their feelings of shame. Sixty-seven percent of their interviewees had never told their spouses, more than half had never told their children, relatives, or friends of their problems with reading and understanding what they read, and the vast majority had likewise never told coworkers or supervisors.

Here's a typical scenario we encounter in the course of our work. Jane (pseudonym) is an unemployed 55-year-old African American woman who recognizes words at the 3.8 grade level and has attended our three-month adult literacy class. She completed the ninth grade and dropped out of school because she found it too difficult and was constantly embarrassed by her poor reading skills. Family members also encouraged her to drop out because they needed help taking care of her younger siblings. Jane enrolled in our class because she said that she is a poor reader and wanted to improve her education. During the course of the class she had consistent attendance and actively participated. After only three months of instruction (classes met four days a week, two hours per day), she showed improvement in her oral vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension abilities. In an interview six months after completing the class, she said that she was continuing to work on her reading skills and had been attending another local adult education class.

Through our interactions with students like Jane, much insight can be gained into the struggles of adults who are active in the social welfare system. An individual who reads below a fourth-grade level can have difficulty following medical procedures and completing paperwork. Students like Jane say that because of their poor reading skills, they are sometimes afraid to meet new professionals in social work settings, and sometimes they find it difficult to follow through with referrals. Many are reluctant to go to a program to increase their literacy skills because of memories of feeling embarrassed and hopeless in school settings.

Social workers need to become familiar with adult literacy issues so that they can advocate for clients who are afraid or unable to advocate for themselves. Instead of becoming frustrated with clients who are noncompliant, a worker should offer to help with paperwork, clarify directions, and thoroughly explain the process of a new referral to help alleviate the anxieties related to the welfare system. These problems may, after all, stem not from a personality conflict, but from fear of having their literacy issues exposed.

What are some of the clues that indicate that clients have difficulty reading or writing? They may make comments such as "I don't have time to do this right now. Can I bring back the application tomorrow?" "I don't have my reading glasses with me, do you mind reading this to me?" or "My hand hurts, do you mind filling out this form for me?" Other clients may not respond to items received in the mail. Some become agitated or leave the office when presented with a form.

If a social worker suspects that a client has a reading difficulty, some suggested comfort lines are "Many people have difficulty filling out this form, let me know if you would like some help with it" or "I sure wish that they made these forms easier to read and understand! Let me know if you want some help--I am used to these forms by now!" If a client acknowledges that he or she has difficulty reading, emphasize that he or she is not alone, that there are many other adults who have difficulty reading. It is also important to stress that the client is a competent person with many skills. If the client expresses interest, it is important to have a list of local literacy programs available. Tell the client that literacy programs are often free, are offered day and night, and can be specifically tailored for adults who have difficulty reading.

It is helpful to assist the adult learner with registering and attending the adult literacy program so that he or she does not become overwhelmed with the process. Expect a client to have difficulty with this monumental change. Do not be disappointed if the client does not follow through with the first referral. It has been our experience that it often takes many referrals and many attempts at contacting a literacy program before a client follows through. Furthermore, social workers should expect other difficulties, not related to a client's reluctance, to interfere with attending a program. In many areas of the country, for example, public transportation is not easily accessible for adults who need to attend adult literacy programs, especially those held in the evening. Where public transportation is available, it may often be unpredictable, making it difficult for students to attend classes on time and on a regular basis. We routinely hear from adult learners that they may have to leave home as much as an hour ahead of schedule just to make it to a class that is 15 minutes driving time from their home.

As with any form of intervention, child care and work often present other hindrances. Many parents are often unable to secure child care and therefore have sporadic attendance or bring their children with them to adult literacy sites. Some adult learners work long hours for low pay and attend classes after work, occasionally falling asleep during class sessions. Some students' schedules vary from week to week, and therefore they are unable to attend class on a regular basis. Students are often embarrassed to tell their employer about their reading difficulties and do not want them to know that they are attending classes. This omission prevents them from asking for consistent work schedules or time off.

Social workers can help improve the quality of service that clients receive by familiarizing themselves with the issues and problems that adults with limited reading abilities face. Knowing the client's literacy obstacles can help reduce frustration for both the client and the worker. Understanding that there is help available for clients and knowing the process for referring clients to literacy programs help clients achieve their goals. Helping clients navigate the welfare and educational systems can empower them and help them reach their full potential. Like Jane, many students have faced barriers to their education; some barriers are simply persistent and unavoidable. Helping clients brainstorm ways to surmount these obstacles can greatly increase their success in adult literacy programs and social welfare programs.

It is important that social workers understand that although individuals with low literacy skills have reading difficulties, they have other strengths that have helped them compensate and survive. Encouraging individuals to seek reading instruction is worthwhile as doing so can help the social worker and the clients see their inner strengths, identify external resources, and tap into the talents that help them function in society.


Comings, J., Reder, S., & Sum, A. (2001). Building a level playing field: The need to expand and improve the national and state adult education and literacy systems. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Hochhauser, M. (1997). Some overlooked aspects of consent form readability. IRB: A Review of Human Subjects Research, 19(5), 5-9.

Kirsch, I. S., Jungeblut, A., Jenkins, L., & Kolstad, A. (1993). Adult literacy in America: A first look at the results of the National Adult Literacy Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED358375)

Lasater, B., & Elliott, B. (2004). Profiles of the adult education target population: In formation from the 2000 Census. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Center for Education Statistics (n.d). National assessment of adult literacy (NAAL): A first look at the literacy of America's adults in the 21st century. Retrieved January 9, 2006 from PDF/2006470.pdf

Parikh, N. S., Parker, R. M., Nurss, J. R., Baker, D.W., & Williams, M.V. (1996). Shame and health literacy: The unspoken connection. Patient Education and Counseling, 27, 33-39.

Daphne Greenberg, PhD, is associate director, Center for the Study of Adult Literacy, Georgia State University, P.O. Box 3977, Atlanta, GA 30302-3977; e-mail: Jamie Lackey, MSW, is project coordinator, Center for the Study of Adult Literacy.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Greenberg, Daphne; Lackey, Jamie
Publication:Social Work
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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