Some 36 million American adults will struggle to read this sentence. Of them, 24 million are in the workforce.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, reported these numbers in its October 2013 Survey of Adult Skills — also known as the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC — after sampling 5,000 Americans. The U.S. Education Department has asked the OECD to extend its research to 5,000 more, with results to be published in 2016.
“I consider this a silent crisis,” said Barbara Endel, senior program director at Jobs for the Future, an organization that designs and promotes job skill training and education. “There’s less ability of our nation to be competitive if we’ve got people who are having trouble reading, working with math and being able to problem-solve.”
The crisis is cyclical. Children with parents who can’t read are more likely to be illiterate, too. The OECD also found that unlike many other industrialized countries, young Americans have only slightly higher skills than their parents — so today’s illiterate parents’ children will likely be only minutely more literate.
Therefore, learning leaders faced with low-literacy workforces have an obligation, as well as several options, to build reading, writing and numerical skills. Not only can they improve their organizational functions, but also they can help stop the current illiteracy cycle to ensure tomorrow’s workforce doesn’t face the same problem.
Who’s to Blame?
The U.S. is behind.
According to the PIAAC, the 17.5 percent of Americans scored lower than 226 out of 500 points on a literacy test in 2012. That means there’s a higher percent of low-literacy people in the U.S. than in seven other countries surveyed, including Japan (4.9 percent), Finland (10.6 percent) and Canada (16.4 percent).
Rita Hewitt, community relations manager for the York Literacy Foundation in York County, Pennsylvania, said the literacy gap has become more noticeable as more jobs have opened up and fewer people are out of work, particularly in the manufacturing industry. Until the economy turned around, employers had a large pool of candidates from which to hire, which enabled them to hire more educated employees.
In February, Pew Research Institute reported more than 5 million job openings on the last business day of 2014, the highest count since January 2001. This increase in demand plus a decrease in unemployment make it more difficult to find qualified workers. Now employers sometimes have to hire from the leftover, low-skilled population.
“The writing is in the sky,” said Steve Perry, head of schools for charter management organization Capital Preparatory Schools. “It couldn’t be any clearer or bigger. Our children’s unimpressive performance will make them among the least sought-after employees.”
The literacy problem might be clear, but the reasons behind it are widely debated. To find the answer, it makes sense to look at literacy’s origins — education and lifestyle. The OECD 2013 survey found more than 60 percent of Americans with low skills actually completed high school.
Perry blames the American educational system. He said children today have a potentially greater capacity for literacy than any other generation, but they’re not taught to read, write or compute in traditional English. “We have allowed them to become an appendage of the educational system as opposed to the reason for the educational system,” he said.
But others say the reason for poor literacy has to do with more than the system. Hewitt said teachers have more obligations they have to meet, such as growing class sizes and a greater focus on catering to learning disabilities.
“There are a lot of things education has to deal with now, and that’s some of the reason some of this is slipping through the cracks,” she said. “We need to recapture those people who were lost because they’re still out there. It’s for our benefit as a nation that we start addressing this need, and, of course, employers are a great place to start.”
Read Between the Line Shifts
Low literacy does not mean low interest in learning how to read. The 2013 OECD survey found 42 percent of adults scoring at Level 1 literacy and 32 percent below Level 1 participate in education and training. Meanwhile, 36 percent of those who participate in education say they want to do more.
At least 3 million low-skilled Americans have a desire to improve their skills but aren’t currently engaged because of barriers such as a lack of programs or family and work obligations. That’s where learning leaders have an opportunity to turn the page on illiteracy.
The York Literary Foundation works with employers to deliver tailored learning that teaches employees reading skills in their current work context. They cover everything from safety procedures to workplace terminology in six- to 12-week trainings. Many companies offer these lessons as part of or between shifts so employees can fit them in and potentially get paid for their time with minimal interruption to their work.
For instance, York partnered with Dawn Food Products Inc., a global bakery supplier with more than 4,000 employees in 40-plus countries. Many of these workers needed English as a Second Language literacy training, so the company worked with York to develop coursework materials that taught vocabulary used in safety training meetings and how to read manuals and signs that warn “Do Not Enter” and “Danger.”
Other companies are pairing up with colleges to get employees the help they need, even without a direct connection to the workplace. At Jobs for the Future, Endel leads the Accelerating Opportunity program. It enrolls employees with skill deficiencies in programs that not only get them a GED — which includes basic reading skills — but also gives them the opportunity to pursue higher education certificates or credentials. More than 85 community colleges participate and work with employers so the right skills are taught, and students work toward certificates that will still be valuable by the time they graduate.
“These are folks employed in entry-level jobs who are functionally literate sometimes with areas that are less developed,” Endel said. “They’re able to function fairly well in their jobs, but the problem is they get stuck. If more professional development dollars were directed across the continuum of the workforce … you can help employees get upskilled and move up in the company.”
Regardless of the type of literacy program employees enroll in, adult learners need applicability and flexibility for literacy lessons to stick. Diana Breen, a deputy executive director at New York adult reading program Literacy Partners, said her organization serves mostly parents who want to be able to read so they can provide better for their families and be more involved in their children’s schooling.
“They tell us they come to class because of their children,” she said. “They want to achieve that American dream. They want to make things better for their children and give them the lives they didn’t have.”
Such goals are pivotal for an adult learner to be successful, and programs should be tailored to fit their needs. In the corporate setting like at Dawn Food Products, lessons fit the company’s needs, safety vocabulary and signage. Breen said if a Literacy Partners student has a job application to prepare, a teacher might replace that day’s lesson plan with one that fits that need.
Helping employees understand writing can be simpler than giving literacy lessons, however. It also can help proficient readers understand instructions and learn new information, as well as assist those with low literacy.
Neurologically, the human brain isn’t hard-wired to read, said Lou Tetlan, founder of neurolearning research organization CID Group and an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine. Literacy is a man-made process that requires training, which means the ability to read depends on biology as well as education.
Form Follows Function
Learning leaders might consider these style and format tips to help disseminate information in a way that’s easier for struggling and advanced readers alike to understand.
Use sans serif fonts. Serif fonts, those with small lines attached to the ends of each stroke take additional visual decoding to understand each letter, while those without — sans serif — are easier to comprehend.
Group concepts together. The right spacing and boxes allow readers to mentally absorb content as different units of information, which increases their ability to remember each section.
Ditch decorative borders. Limit the amount of lines and shapes to only what will enhance the flow of information.
Balance words with pictures.The human brain can naturally comprehend images; it has to learn how to decipher text. Symbols and pictures not only illustrate an idea but also break up large blocks of text.
Source: Lou Tetlan, CID Group, 2015
“There’s little a CLO actually needs to do other than be aware there’s this invisible elephant in the room standing between them and the audience,” she said.
Tetlan’s research looks at the neurological reasons behind the literacy gap, and many of the findings she published in her 2015 report relate to cognitive overload, which happens when the brain can’t process what the eye is sending to the visual cortex, or “reading,” because it’s receiving more queues than it can decipher.
“When presenting the written word gets in the way of learning and understanding, it creates a deeper problem,” she said. “It’s something as simple as changing and adapting a format.”
For example, consider using what Tetlan calls “schema acquisition.” Information is written clearly and chunked together into schemata, or building blocks of knowledge. These chunks are formatted into flowcharts, underlined portions, highlighted phrases and diagrams so readers can see how each one builds on top of the other.
When Tetlan experimented with this format vs. traditional textbook or manual formats — solid chunks of paragraphs with little to break up information — both proficient and remedial readers participating in the study said the visual-based versions were more engaging and easier to understand and remember.
“Gutenberg comes along, and it’s easier to use text than images,” Tetlan said. “We look around and decipher trees — that comes to us naturally. Text does not. It’s time for this pendulum to swing back and get into balance.”
Reasons for Reading
Tetlan became interested in the literacy problem about 15 years ago, and the children she first observed are now part of the workforce. She said what’s kept her rooted to her studies is seeing the effect textual misunderstanding can have on workplace safety and errors.
Although misread charts and instructions have led to fatal medical accidents and plane crashes, one of Tetlan’s more lighthearted examples includes an 18th-century French chateau that was demolished by mistake in 2012. The owner had asked construction crews to restore it to its Baroque glory, which meant removing a smaller building in the back. The workers misread his directions and razed Chateau de Bellevue, leaving the outhouse intact.
Accidents like these aren’t rare or as darkly humorous. For that reason, Kevin Morgan, president and CEO of nonprofit ProLiteracy, works with employers to build literacy to avoid such mistakes, increase productivity and boost employee engagement.
“We’d all like to think that employers out of the kindness of their hearts would offer workplace literacy opportunities,” Morgan said. “But even if you’re just bottom-line focused, it has the potential to save you money.”
Employee turnover, engagement and loyalty all improve when employers offer literacy training. ProLiteracy’s 2015 member survey found two-thirds of its literacy programs reported waiting lists, showing that adults want this training. Organizations that offer the right support reap the benefits in their employees’ loyalty.
But literacy affects tomorrow’s employees as well as current ones. If parents can’t read and write, chances are their children will have trouble, too.
That’s why literacy advocates like Breen see so many parents come through their doors and why she advises learning leaders to target parents.
“Low literacy perpetuates poverty,” Breen said. “Focus on parents because that will break the generational cycle of poverty by helping parents increase theirliteracy so they can transfer those skills to their children” — otherwise known as America’s future workforce.