ERIC Identifier: ED372664
Publication Date: 1994-09-00
Author: Wiley, Terrence G.
Source: Adjunct ERIC
Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Estimating Literacy in the Multilingual United States: Issues
and Concerns. ERIC Digest.
Literacy is a topic of much concern in the United States. The media
periodically call attention to what appears to be a literacy crisis of alarming
proportions with large segments of the adult population being illiterate, or
very nearly so. In fact, most adults are literate at some level. Moreover, in a
nation where 32 million people (over the age of five) speak a language other
than English at home (Macias, 1994), many are literate in their native language
and, often in English as well. Why then is there so much concern about literacy
problems? One reason is that expectations regarding how much formal education
people need tend to increase with each generation (Resnick & Resnick, 1977).
Another is that estimates of literacy, or more accurately of "English literacy,"
indicate that a large number of adults lack some or many literacy skills that
are considered necessary to function in contemporary U.S. society. Many
policymakers regard data from literacy surveys as barometers of national
well-being, as indicators of the country's economic preparedness for competition
in a global economy, or as gauges of how well schools are equipping students
with skills assumed to be requisite for full social, economic, and political
This digest reports on findings from recent literacy surveys and interprets
these findings in light of theoretical and definitional issues involved in
estimating literacy; it examines approaches commonly used to measure literacy
and enumerates concerns about the limitations of these approaches in
linguistically diverse contexts; and it concludes with a call for more research
on native language literacy and biliteracy.
FINDINGS FROM MAJOR LITERACY SURVEYS: BAD NEWS AND MORE BAD
Typically, the news from national surveys is disheartening. In 1982,
for example, the English Language Proficiency Survey (ELPS) estimated the number
of those non-literate in English to be between 17 and 21 million; approximately
7 million of that group were from homes where languages other than English were
spoken (National Institute of Education, 1986; National Clearinghouse for ESL
Literacy Education, 1991). More recently, headlines reported alarming findings
from the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), that indicated that 40 to
44 million adults could perform literacy tasks in English at only the lowest
level of a five point scale on each of three types of tasks. Moreover, a
whopping 90 million--about half of the entire U.S. adult population--could
perform tasks only up to the second level (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993). Again, nonnative English speakers, especially those born outside
the United States, were disproportionately represented at the lowest levels of
ability. How should findings such as these be interpreted? Do 90 million adults
have difficulty with literacy tasks on a daily basis?
ISSUES IN ESTIMATING LITERACY
Despite the widespread
interest in findings such as these, a number of considerations must be addressed
when interpreting them. Attempts to estimate national levels of literacy are
burdened with many difficulties, both theoretical and logistical. For example,
there has been considerable debate over how literacy should be defined (see
Macias, 1990; Mikulecky, 1990). Literacy cannot be measured without operational
definitions. For many years, researchers tended to dichotomize findings by
imposing a rigid boundary between literacy and illiteracy. Others suggested that
literacy was better represented along a continuum. More recently, scholars
interested in what people actually do with literacy in sociocultural contexts
have argued that literacy cannot be treated as an autonomous, or singular,
construct at all. They maintain that there are literacies, i.e., many specific
social and cultural practices involving print (Heath, 1980; Scribner & Cole,
1981). Street (1993) further contends that literacy must be viewed from an
ideological perspective which includes issues of how literacy practices relate
to dominance and differences in power between groups. From these perspectives,
literacy cannot be analyzed merely as isolated skills; rather, these skills must
be studied in actual social, economic, and political contexts. These views
appear to place both logistical and theoretical constraints on the very attempt
to measure literacy at the national level, since national surveys cannot
accommodate all of these concerns.
Notwithstanding these issues, the endeavor to collect better data based upon
more sophisticated measures continues (the NALS represents the latest of such
efforts). Without such data, it is difficult to determine what types of
educational programs are needed and where funding should be channeled. For
example, national data can be used to determine where English literacy programs
and native language literacy services or biliteracy services (e.g., bilingual
ballots) are needed (Wiley, in press).
COMMON APPROACHES TO MEASURING LITERACY
There are three
major approaches to literacy assessment: self-reported information, surrogate
indicators (e.g., grade-level achievement), and direct measures (i.e., tests).
The U.S. Census has long been a major source of data for both self-reported and
surrogate data, although both types of information are considered by many to be
less than ideal. Self-reported information is usually considered subjective and
unreliable, and "years of schooling" is seen as a dubious indicator of knowledge
or skill mastery. However, a strong correlation between "years of schooling" and
"self-reported literacy" has been demonstrated (see McArthur, 1993). Direct
assessments such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and
NALS (above) are considered much more reliable. However, these also have
drawbacks. For example, during the 1970s, a major competency-based English
literacy test, the Adult Proficiency Level (APL), was criticized because its
functional literacy competencies were narrowly derived from middle-class
educational norms and behaviors rather than from a nationally representative
population (Hunter & Harman, 1979). The NALS attempted to simulate
real-world literacy tasks related to three types of texts--prose, document, and
quantitative. Despite improvements over previous measures (Macias, 1994), there
remain several persistent concerns regarding the ecological validity (real-world
authenticity) of the test content and testing situation as well as the cultural
and linguistic bias of direct measures in general.
LIMITATIONS OF NATIONAL ASSESSMENTS
A number of concerns
can also be raised with respect to how well most national literacy surveys deal
with language diversity. Macias (1994) has called attention to four typical
problems. First, most fail to survey literacy in languages other than English,
thereby equating literacy with English literacy. This omission inflates the
perception of the extent of the literacy crisis and stigmatizes those who are
literate in languages other than English. It also fails to provide important
data that could be used in educational programs, since adult programs for the
non-literate need to be substantially different in design from those for
individuals who are already literate in some language. In an attempt to address
this problem, the NALS asked background questions regarding literacy in
languages other than English. (These findings have not been reported as of this
writing.) Second, surveys often overemphasize oral English ability, thereby
equating speaking English with being literate in English. If educational
programs are to be designed to promote English literacy, we need to know more
about whether people speak, read, AND write English. Third, studies often
undercount language minority groups due to sampling biases. (To rectify this
problem, the NALS oversampled for these groups.) Undercounting makes it
difficult to determine the extent of the need for literacy programs. Last,
surveys are ambiguous in how they identify those in their samples, blurring the
lines between language, race, and ethnicity (Macias, 1993). The term "Hispanic," for example, is often used as if it were a linguistic AND racial or ethnic
NEED FOR NATIVE LANGUAGE LITERACY AND BILITERACY
Although English is unquestionably the dominant language in the United
States, it is unrealistic to assume that it can meet all the needs of those who
speak other languages (Fishman, 1980). Given the reality of language diversity
in the United States, better data are needed on language minority populations
and on literacy in languages other than English. To date, only one major survey,
the 1979 National Chicano Survey (NCS), has lent itself to measuring biliteracy
(literacy in two languages). For populations with large numbers of individuals
who speak languages other than English, or who are bilingual, such data are
essential for understanding the extent of their literacy resources and needs.
Secondary data analysis of the NCS indicated an overall self-reported literacy
rate of 74% (52% English literate, 42% Spanish literate, and 22% biliterate). If
English literacy had been the sole focus of the survey, the illiteracy rate
would have been 48%. Using a biliteracy analysis, it was 26% (Macias, 1988).
Clearly, there is a need for more data
collection and analysis to determine the biliteracy abilities of the 32 million
people who speak languages other than English at home and for greater
sensitivity to language diversity among speakers of non-standard varieties of
English (see Wolfram, 1994). There is also a need for better sampling and more
authentic assessment. Even with these improvements, survey data should not be
reported or interpreted in such a way as to blame or stigmatize those who have
not had equal access to formal education. Finally, in interpreting results from
literacy surveys, it is important to recognize the inherent limitations in the
three major approaches used to date.
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