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Researchers Push For Spectrum of Skills To Describe Literacy

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When the U.S. Education Department released a landmark study last month on adult literacy in America, media reports focused heavily on the dismal news that roughly 47 percent of the nation's adult population scored at the lowest levels on the tests used to define literacy.

But few noted that the authors of the report were defining literacy in a new and unusual way.

"Many past studies of adult literacy have tried to count the number of 'illiterates' in this nation, thereby treating literacy as a condition that individuals do or do not have,'' argued the authors of the report, entitled "Adult Literacy in America.'' "We believe that such efforts are inherently arbitrary or misleading.''

The researchers, who conducted the National Adult Literacy Survey for the National Center for Education Statistics, rejected the popular notion that literacy can be narrowly defined as simply the ability to read and write.

Rather, they adopted the view that literacy is far more accurately described as a spectrum of skills that includes interpreting, comparing, and analyzing all manner of printed information, including graphs, charts, and tables that are based on mathematics.

"If you ask the average adult, 'Tell me what you think is meant by literacy and reading,' they'll say, 'It's something that you do at night,' and they tend to associate it with leisure and school,'' says Irwin Kirsch, a researcher at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., who headed the four-person team that wrote the report.

Without prompting, few people would think of the daily barrage of printed information that they cope with in the workplace--from printed reports to messages on computer screens--as falling under the broader, more sophisticated definition of literacy, he adds.

The new definition, Mr. Kirsch believes, represents the latest development in the longstanding efforts of researchers to measure the ability of adults to manipulate printed matter.

This more holistic definition, Mr. Kirsch and others say, also has important implications for educators as they develop national standards for what K-12 students should know and be able to do in subjects across the curriculum.

An Evolving Definition

"To me, the most significant potential of this report is to reshape the way we think about literacy,'' says Anthony R. Sarmiento, the assistant director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s education department, who served on a committee that helped devise the new definition. "This has implications for all the standards-setting efforts and the content areas.''

Mr. Kirsch and others note that the way in which society defines what it means to be literate has evolved almost constantly since the early days of the nation's founding.

"I think definitions and standards change as society changes and as we learn more about what we expect people to be able to do,'' Mr. Kirsch says.

In colonial America, for example, the ability to scrawl a signature at the bottom of a document often constituted acceptable proof that an individual was literate by the standards of the day.

Such a mark often was considered sufficient evidence that a person could read and write well enough to function in society, not only by contemporaries, but later by historians as they attempted to quantify the national literacy rate of centuries past.

But such gauges often were misleading, at best, in reflecting the ability of adults to function in society, Mr. Kirsch notes.

As late as World War II, the large numbers of men being drafted into the armed services generally described themselves in interviews as being literate, meaning, for the most part, that they had mastered basic reading and writing.

But "even though it looked as though the literacy rates were kind of high, they couldn't do what the military needed them to do,'' Mr. Kirsch says.

Today, largely as a result of the dramatic changes in the kinds and amounts of information necessary to function in society, expectations of what skills should constitute literacy are much higher than they might have been even as recently as a decade ago, says Richard Lesh, a principal scientist with the E.T.S.'s division of cognitive and instructional science.

In math, for example, literacy today would encompass skills far beyond the ability to perform basic arithmetic calculations.

Mr. Lesh observes that most general-circulation newspapers in recent years have to some extent emulated the pattern, set by USA Today, of displaying much information in graphic rather than verbal form.

"A lot of this is due to technology and the ability to massage large data bases to produce information that might not even have been available'' just a decade ago, he notes.

And those increased expectations already have begun to have an impact on the precollegiate curriculum.

As a result of recent curriculum-reform efforts, a middle school student can reasonably be expected to tease out important inferences from a graph of declining mortality rates or to compare several pieces of conflicting data about the same phenomenon.

The wide gap between the historical conception of a "literate'' individual and today's more open-ended definition highlights an important change that educators increasingly will have to incorporate into the curriculum in order to prepare students for full citizenship.

"Unlike traditional definitions of literacy, which focused on decoding and comprehension, this definition encompasses a broad range of skills that adults use in accomplishing the many different types of literacy tasks associated with work, home, and community contexts,'' the literacy report notes.

Three-Part Scale

The committee adopted its definition of literacy from a study of young adults undertaken for the Education Department in the late 1980's.

Literacy, as defined in the earlier report, is the ability to use "printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential.''

That definition also was incorporated into the National Literacy Act of 1990, which was designed to both strengthen and coordinate adult-literacy programs nationwide.

The adult survey also adopted a three-part scale used in the previous study to measure how survey respondents performed on discrete tasks designed to assess literacy.

The components of the scale include:

  • Prose literacy, or the knowledge and skills needed to understand and use information from such texts as editorials, news stories, poems, and fiction;
  • Document literacy, or the ability to locate and use information contained in materials such as job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and graphs; and
  • Quantitative literacy, or the ability to apply arithmetic operations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials to perform such tasks as balancing a checkbook, figuring a tip, or determining the amount of interest on a loan.

To determine how well adults nationally fared in these areas, the N.A.L.S. last year sampled some 26,000 individuals over the age of 16 using tasks that represented the wide range of tasks that demand literacy in daily life.

Responses were then pegged at one of five levels, based on such factors as the length and complexity of written material, the number of arithmetic operations needed to complete a math problem, the number of inferences to be made, the presence of distracting information, and the number of places where the information could be located.

The results of the survey indicated that between 21 percent and 23 percent of adults, or roughly 40 million to 44 million people, demonstrated skills in the lowest levels of the scale. A further 50 million adults, or roughly 25 percent to 28 percent, demonstrated skills in the second-lowest ranking. (See Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993.)

Fewer than one-quarter of the adults demonstrated skills in the two highest categories.

However, perhaps the most disturbing finding, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s Mr. Sarmiento says, is that even those who performed poorly did not seem to be aware of their limitations.

"A lot of adults do not perceive themselves to be illiterate,'' he says. "We do have significant numbers of adults that are illiterate ... based on the conventional thinking about literacy, but that's a minor part of the problem.''

Unfortunately, he added, "there are large numbers of people who, not surprisingly, don't perceive themselves as illiterate, but who have difficulty performing basic tasks.''

Implications for Schools

The implications of those findings, as well as the changing definition of literacy for the public school curriculum, are sweeping, researchers say.

"If we want all kids to have critical literacy skills, schools are going to have to be better at teaching those skills,'' says Carl Kaestle, a professor of educational policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin who helped develop the new literacy definition.

And such an emphasis, Mr. Kirsch says, will mean looking beyond the narrow definition of reading comprehension as a measure of literacy skills.

"Schools, for example, don't teach math as literacy, they teach it as math,'' he says. "I think all of the stuff gets taught, but it doesn't get taught from a unified theory of literacy.''

But Mr. Kaestle points out that developers of the English and language-arts curriculum traditionally have looked askance at the idea that the ability to read "functional'' documents should be included in a definition of literacy.

"You have to overcome the opposition of people who want to maintain their language-arts curriculum, with its traditional literary emphasis, without doing what they are charging you with, which is trivializing the curriculum,'' he says.

Adds Mr. Kirsch, "If people spend a good deal of time reading documents, and if that's important in our society, then we ought to think of ways to be teaching that.''

To teach a more critical and usable version of literacy also is likely to have an impact on assessment, Mr. Lesh says, because often the short-answer format of the multiple-choice test is used to decide whether students have achieved a desired level of literacy.

"Literacy right now is so closely associated with testing that it gives a rather distorted picture,'' he says.

But, Mr. Kirsch notes, some exemplary reform efforts, such as the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, are already moving toward an approach that better matches the new literacy definition.

The math standards, which are serving as a model for the development of national standards in science and other areas of the curriculum, emphasize communication and reasoning.

"One of the standards that has made the most difference is 'math as communication,''' Mr. Lesh says. "Nobody had ever said that before.''

Jack Price, the N.C.T.M.'s president-elect, echoed the idea that to fully appreciate the complexity and utility of math, students should be able to do more than just calculate.

"Numeracy is one thing,'' he says. "But it's also important for students to read, and to understand, and to communicate with others.''

And while the lack of emphasis in the standards on traditional drill-and-practice techniques is often criticized by advocates of "back to basics'' education, Mr. Price says students over all will be better served in their adult lives by the standards' emphasis on reasoning and the ability to read graphs and charts critically.

"We think that it's extremely important that young people be able to read those kinds of information,'' he says. "To know when those graphs are misleading, for example, or when they can be trusted.''

Mr. Sarmiento notes that while it is unclear whether a vast "literacy gap'' currently exists in the workforce, any societal change to prevent such a gap from developing will require a much broader effort to improve literacy than the schools alone can achieve.

In essence, efforts will have to be made to help the public understand the personal benefits of achieving the "new literacy,'' he argues.

"We still are going to need adults to invest their own time and efforts,'' he says. "The best parallel I can think of, and it's not perfect, is what the aerobics movement did for physical fitness in the mid-1970's.''

The alternative to effective literacy education, says Mr. Kaestle, is to run the risk of an educationally bifurcated and less competitive society.

"People in the workplace get help and they cope,'' he says. "But real empowerment comes when you can read whatever you wish to read at different levels. Then you aren't at the mercy of somebody else to help you.''

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