by Meredith Larson
If you’re reading this, you probably have a job where you read and write 40+ hours a week, you are likely to read and write for pleasure, and you may even have a bookcase at home. For people for whom reading and writing are as common as air and water, it is difficult to imagine how reading a short paragraph or navigating a local paper’s website could be obstacles. Yet these are difficult tasks for many people (even for those you assume read well such as the college educated).
The message I have is simple: The struggle with low literacy is real, and this reality needs to inform every decision we make as writers, regardless of our audience.
How do we know the struggle is real? Recently, the U.S. and over 30 other nations participated in an international survey of adult skills called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). This survey collected a wealth of background and demographic information and assessed the literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills of adults. Survey participants from the United States ranged from 16- to 75-years old and came from many walks of life.
The PIAAC defined literacy and numeracy in practical terms, aiming to capture the types of activities adults might typically do in their day-to-day lives in developed nations. For example, the test questions asked people to read short articles about a local “Fun Run” race and identify how this year’s event differed from the previous year’s or to calculate the cost of two pairs of shoes in a sale where the second pair (of equal or lesser value) is half price. The PIAAC had five proficiency levels, with Level 3 being considered “proficient” or well enough to fully engage (economically, socially, etc.). Here are examples of a Level 3 literacy item and numeracy item.
And the survey says…: Nearly 52% of U.S. adults score below Level 3 proficiency (i.e., they score Level 2 and below), with almost 20% of our population at the very lowest levels of performance. That’s right: the majority of people may struggle to read through a “simple” bullet-point list of rules (see the literacy example above). The numeracy results are even starker. Nearly 62% of our population might not be able to read a graph or calculate the cost of shoes reliably.
So who are these U.S. adults with low proficiency?
Are they older adults who didn’t have access to formal education or maybe have other complicating issues? No. Low literacy is evenly distributed across the generations. Even millennials, one of the most educated generations in our history, have high rates of low proficiency. Unlike some other developed nations, our younger generations are not performing any better than older ones. 
Are they foreign born and maybe struggle with English? No. Nearly 80% of those with low literacy were born in the U.S.
Are they unemployed? No. In fact, over 60% of those with low literacy are employed. Roughly 30% are out of the workforce (e.g., retired, caring for family, in school). Only 8% are unemployed.
Are they clustered in particular areas? Yes and no. There is no statistically significant difference among cities, towns, and rural areas in terms of low literacy rates. Only suburbs are different, with a significantly higher rate of adults at or above proficient. As for regional distribution, just under 50% of adults in the Midwest, Northeast, and West have low literacy rates, whereas it’s closer to 58% in the South.
Surely education matters, right? Yes but it’s not a panacea. The PIAAC results do suggest that the more education someone has, the higher his or her proficiency is likely to be. However, the data show that even those with high levels of academic achievement struggle with literacy. In fact, 39% of U.S. adults with an Associate’s degree, 25% of those with a Bachelor’s degree, and 19% of those with more than a Bachelor’s degree have low literacy skills (i.e., are below proficiency). Keep in mind that only 13% of the total population is above proficient (i.e., Level 4/5).
And the story doesn’t end with reading…: U.S. adults with low literacy rates are also less likely to be civically engaged, less likely to feel as though they have influence on the government, more likely to report having poor health, and more likely to believe you can trust only a few people.
So what does that mean for those of us writing for the public?
We need to assume that we professional writers are the odd ones and that the majority of people that are relying on our materials may struggle with them, especially if we’re writing for the general public. And even if we are writing for the highly educated, we should assume they may struggle with our materials, especially if they’re not familiar with our subject matter.
We need to keep in mind that those who may struggle most may also be the ones who need our services most and yet feel most wary of us. And when our writing becomes an obstacle for understanding, we may intensify their distrust, lead to incorrect interpretations of services or rules, and actually exacerbate the very issues we hoped to address. Rather than protect the public trust, we may undermine this trust by failing to meet our readers where they are.
There are things we writers and editors can do to make our text less taxing and to help adults who have low literacy rates. Plain Language principles give us a place to start, but even they may not be sufficient. We need research on how to better accommodate readers with low-proficiency.
In the meantime, we should all consider ways we can write to help those who may be struggling to become more fluent readers navigate through our federal documents and websites. The struggle is real, and we cannot leave reader behind. By being humble and aware, we—the readers and writers with thousands of hours of practice—can help bridge the gap and communicate more effectively.
To learn more about the PIAAC: The international OECD website at http://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences website at https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac, and the PIAAC gateway website at http://piaacgateway.com.
Data compiled for this blog came from https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/international/ide/.
 Goodman, M. J., Sands, A. M., & Coley, R. J. (2015). America’s skills challenge: Millennials and the future. Retrieved from Educational Testing Service website: http://www.ets.org/s/research/30079/index.html.
 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2013). Skilled for life? Key findings from the survey of adult skills. Retrieved from OECD website: http://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/SkillsOutlook_2013_ebook.pdf.