In 1988, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Education to undertake an assessment of the literacy skills of American adults, those 16 years old and older. Three years later, in 1991, Congress passed the National Literacy Act that defined literacy as "an individual's ability to read, write, and speak in English, and 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."
Using this definition of literacy, the U.S. Department of Education published the results of its National Adult Literacy Survey in 1993. This monumental survey remains the most comprehensive, statistically reliable source on literacy in the United States. Rather than classifying individuals as either "literate" or "illiterate," this survey created three literacy scales: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. These scales profile the types of materials and demands individuals encounter in their daily lives; for example, interpreting instructions from a warranty, reading maps, balancing a checkbook, or figuring out a tip. By measuring literacy proficiency for each literacy scale, five levels of literacy were defined with Level 1 reflecting the lowest skills and Level 5 reflecting the highest skills.
The State of Literacy in America provides the percent of each State's population at Level 1 literacy.
The National Adult Literacy Survey found that 21 percent of American adults had Level 1 literacy skills, and 27 percent of American adults had Level 2 literacy skills. While there are no exact grade equivalents, Level 1 literacy is generally defined as less than fifth-grade reading and comprehension skills, and Level 2 is generally defined as fifth through seventh grades reading and comprehension skills. Although many Level 1 adults could perform tasks involving simple texts and documents, all adults scoring at Level 1 displayed difficulty using certain reading, writing, and computational skills considered necessary for functioning in everyday life. Almost all Level 1 adults could read a little, but not well enough to fill out an application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child. While most of these adults are not considered "illiterate," they do not have the full range of economic, social, and personal options that are open to Americans with higher levels of literacy skills.
For the purpose of this report, Level 1 literacy has been used as the definition of "low literacy." The predominant reason for this is that Level 1 literacy information is readily available at sub-State levels; whereas, Levels 2 to 5 literacy information is not. In the majority of cases, there is a direct correlation between low literacy, low educational attainment, and low income. There are always exceptions, such as recent Russian immigrants now living in California, who were well educated in their homeland and have excellent literacy in Russian, but have limited English proficiency. As a result of their inability to speak, read, and write English, they are employed in low-income jobs.
The National Adult Literacy Survey determined the percentage of the adult population for each level of literacy (LL).
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended by the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994, defined limited English proficiency, when referencing an Individual means an individual:
(A) who (i) was not born in the United State[s] or whose native language is a language other than English and comes from an environment where a language other than English is dominant; or (ii) is a Native American or Alaska[n] Native or who is a native resident of the outlying areas and comes from an environment where a language other than English has had a significant impact on such individual's level of English language proficiency; or (iii) is migratory and whose native language is other than English and comes from an environment where a language other than English is dominant; and (B) who has sufficient difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language and who[se] difficulties may deny such individual the opportunity to learn successfully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in our society.
These individuals function in English at approximately Level 1 literacy and may or may not function as well or better in their primary language.
Although English is the predominant language spoken in this country, the 2000 Census estimated that 17.9 percent of the Nation's population spoke a language other than English at home. By a large margin, the most frequently spoken non-English language at home was Spanish. Those speaking Spanish at home accounted for 60.0 percent of those who spoke a language other than English at home, and represented 10.7 percent of the Nation's population. Chinese was the second most frequently spoken non-English language at home. It accounted for 4.3 percent of those who spoke a language other than English at home, and represented 0.8 percent of the Nation's population.
Modern Language Association identifies the number of Spanish speakers for every county in the Nation.