Outreach Resources for Services to Adult New and Non-Readers

Libraries have a long tradition of providing resources and services for adults wanting to improve their reading and writing skills.  Basic, functional literacy is an essential skill for an individual’s personal and professional growth—it is also key to their full, beneficial use of the library’s services and programs.  Adult literacy is still a concern in the United States and a key focus of libraries’ outreach efforts.

Adult New and Non-Reader Populations in the U.S. 

The American Library Association’s Committee on Literacy defines literacy as “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."

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) is designed to measure functional English literacy among adults (16 and over) in the United States.  NAAL measures three types of literacy:

  • Prose Literacy—The knowledge and skills to search, comprehend, and use continuous texts (e.g. editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials
  • Document Literacy—The knowledge and skills to search, comprehend, and use non-continuous texts in various formats (e.g.  job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and drug or food labels)
  • Quantitative Literacy—The knowledge and skills to identify and perform computations using numbers embedded in printed materials (e.g. balancing a checkbook, calculating a tip, completing an order form)

According to the results of a 2003 NAAL study:

  • 14% of adults (30 million) function at a below basic prose literacy level and 29% (62 million)function at a basic prose literacy level
  • 12% of adults (25 million) function at a below basic document literacy level and 22% (47 million) function at a basic document literacy level
  • 22% of adults (47 million) function at a below basic quantitative literacy level and 33% (71 million) function at a basic quantitative literacy level

The implications of the above are alarming, especially for individuals performing at below basic levels.  These adults cannot identify a specific location on a map, complete a job application or an insurance form, understand the instructions on a medicine bottle, or effectively help their children with homework.  

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 11 million adults are nonliterate in English.  These adults fall into two groups:

  • 7 million who could not answer simple test questions
  • 4 million who could not take the test because of language barriers

Many individuals whose literacy is at the below basic level, can be classified as adult learners.

  • The U.S. Department of Education defines adult learners as individuals over the age of 16 without a high school diploma or GED.
  • The California State Library and other libraries across the country describe adult learners as individuals over the age of 16 with or without a high school diploma.

Adult learners are community members, parents and partners, employers and employees, teachers and learners.  Adult learners may be native English speakers or English language learners, and may or may not be literate in their native language. Many adult learners may have struggled in school because of undiagnosed learning disabilities or uneven attendance.

Equity of Access Issues for Adult Literacy Learners

Libraries often include adult literacy service in their mission and vision statements.  According to an unpublished (1999) survey conducted by the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, 94% of public libraries serving more than 5,000 people or more, provide some kind of adult literacy services ranging from information and referral to direct instruction. 

Adult literacy learners come to the library with the same expectations of any patron—information, assistance, respect, and privacy.   

If there is an equity of access issue for adult literacy learners, it is the barrier which their literacy level imposes on their fully beneficial use of the library and its services.

To eliminate access issues for adult literacy learners, libraries should meet the needs of adult learners who come to the library ready to learn.  Libraries can effectively serve adult literacy learners by

  • providing literacy classes or referrals to community-based literacy
  • building adult literacy collections or materials to further the learning opportunities of adult literacy learners

It is important to remember that adult literacy learners come to the library because the library

  • is a trusted institution serving the entire community
  • offers programs and services for every level and for every generation
  • has skilled librarians to guide and support learning efforts
  • provides books and resources, in print and digital formats, at multiple reading levels
  • provides free access to computers and the internet
  • has formal and informal learning opportunities
  • offers self-paced learning in a non-school setting

Selected ALA Resources for Serving Adult Literacy Learners

ALA Member Groups

Selected ALA Policies Regarding Literacy

Contact and Questions

Questions?  Comments?  If you would like to share questions or comments on ALA’s resources for serving adult new and non-readers, please contact ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services at 800.545.2433, ext. 4294, or diversity@ala.org