Literacy in Adulthood

Authored by: M Cecil Smith

Handbook of Research on Adult Learning and Development

Print publication date:  November  2008
Online publication date:  November  2008

Print ISBN: 9780805858198
eBook ISBN: 9780203887882
Adobe ISBN: 9781135597405


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Literacy is among the most important facets of adult life in modern societies. The abilities to read and write, perform basic mathematical tasks, and use technologies such as computers are considered to be essential skills of an educated individual who is able to function competently in the everyday world. Literate persons appear to have a number of economic and social advantages compared to illiterates. Adults who are literate are more likely to be employed and employed first. They have ready access to various kinds of text information that serve to inform, direct, enlighten, provoke, inspire, entertain, and keep them healthy. Literate adults can also use their literacy skills to provide assistance to others, including their children as they are learning to read and write. In contrast, adults who struggle with literacy tasks generally find that opportunities for well-paying jobs and advancement within the workplace are limited. Illiterate adults and those whose literacy skills are marginal may be unable to assist their children with homework. They are less able to navigate the health care system with its complex array of insurance documents and related forms. Further, low literate adults are less likely to participate in the activities that are characteristic of citizenship, such as voting or writing letters to local, state, or congressional representatives to advocate on behalf of themselves and others (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993). Performing one’s job, raising a family, being a “smart” consumer, fulfilling citizenship roles such as voting, engaging in leisure—all of these roles require some degree of literacy to fully accomplish.

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