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Literacy Affects Almost Everything

Many think of literacy as the ability to read and write. But literacy means more than understanding the written word. It also represents understanding non-linguistic concepts such as digital technology, healthcare, and culture.

The Plurality of Literacy and Its Implications for Policies and Programmes from UNESCO defines literacy:

"Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society."

While this is true, linguistic literacy is just the start of what literacy means as a life skill. You might be surprised to learn there are other types of literacy that affect health, economic development, employment, society and more.

The basic literacy of reading and writing sets the foundation for the many life skills people will need to flourish in their lives. They must master it before moving on to other types of literacy. "Adult Literacy Facts" published by ProLiteracy references a National Bureau of Economic Research study which notes that children of parents with low literacy skills are 72 percent more likely to also have low reading levels. Low literacy levels increase their chances of getting lower grades, having behavioral problems and dropping out.


The same ProLiteracy article points to a statistic from the American Journal of Public Health that correlates literacy with healthcare costs. Researchers have linked low adult literacy to more than $230 billion per year in healthcare costs. This is because low literacy affects adults' ability to understand health information and make appropriate decisions.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued "The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy." HHS defines health literacy as "the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions."

The plan explains that improving health literacy plays a key role in the success of the nation's health agenda and achieving the objectives in Healthy People 2020 issued by the HHS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people need health literacy skills to find information, communicate their needs, process the information and choose the right services to meet their needs.

Reading and writing alone do not give people the needed health literacy skills. Basic literacy offers a good start when people fill out forms and hear their healthcare provider's instructions. But, hearing or reading information from the medical provider and comprehending it are two different things.

Being health-literate means knowing how to request clarification, ask questions, understand healthcare instructions and act as a self-advocate. It also involves knowing which healthcare provider to see and when. These skills require more than learning how to read and write.

When adults do not know how to make health decisions, it increases the chances they will incur higher health costs. Many college graduates land their first job without learning how health insurance works, and they often have difficulty completing the required forms.

The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy was created to improve health literacy in the U.S. Effecting change requires involvement from policymakers, organizations, communities, professionals and families.

Economic Development

Word Alive's "What Is the Connection Between Literacy and Economic Development?" refers to a report from the World Literacy Foundation that states that illiteracy costs more than $300 billion in the U.S. and $1.2 trillion to the global economy.

A look at the literacy rates of prisoners demonstrates the impact of literacy on economic development. Data shows that three out of five inmates in U.S. prisons cannot read. Furthermore, 75 percent of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal inmates failed to finish high school or have low skills, according to the National Council for Adult Learning (NCAL).

The good news is that inmates who participate in correctional education programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison, as reported in "How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go From Here?" Not only that, but their chances of getting a job after serving their prison sentence is 13 percent higher than for those who did not.

Every two years the Council for Economic Education (CEE) provides an overview on the state of K-12 economic and financial education in the United States. The CEE's "2018 Survey of the States" confirms no growth in personal finance or economic education. The survey reports that only 22 states require students to take an economics class and 17 states require students to take a class in personal finance.

Adults need economic and financial literacy skills to manage their money wisely and make responsible decisions about their financial futures. The latter is especially more important than ever with people living longer in retirement.

With the cost of college and housing growing, adults need to understand how to minimize personal debt, avoid high costs incurred from borrowing money, and save money for emergencies.

Even students who enroll in college to prepare for a career and increase their chances of earning a higher salary need basic financial literacy skills. Unless they major in finance, they are unlikely to learn how to save, invest and grow their money. Economic literacy is not a problem limited to people with a low level of basic literacy.


Per NCAL, adults with low literacy and numeracy levels have a higher rate of unemployment and earn wages below the national average. Clearly, overall literacy builds upon basic and numeracy literacy. When a person has a low level of literacy in one area, it impacts another area.

Unfortunately, The Nation's Report Card asserts that only 37 percent of U.S. fourth graders met the mark for reading proficiency in 2018. At 28 percent, the figure for writing is lower. Adults need these skills to land jobs that pay above minimum wage. NCAL says low literacy costs the U.S. more than $225 billion every year due to non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and tax revenue lost to unemployment.

Literacy skills affect every aspect of employment, from finding a job to furthering your career with training opportunities. Literacy allows you to develop comprehension skills and gives you the ability to analyze many pieces of information to find a solution. The demand for analytical skills has grown with the advent of big data.

Health literacy gives you the skills to take care of your health so you can go to work every day. Financial literacy helps you prepare for unexpected costs and your future. Literacy simply gives people the ability to take control of their own lives and be productive citizens in their communities.

Learn more about Louisiana State University Shreveport's online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction: Reading & Literacy program.


ProLiteracy: Adult Literacy Facts

Rand Corporation: How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go From Here?

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy

National Council for Adult Learning: Adult Education Facts That Demand Priority Attention

The Nation's Report Card: How Did U.S. Students Perform on the Most Recent Assessments?

UNESCO Education Sector: The Plurality of Literacy and Its Implications for Policies and Programmes

Council for Economic Education: Survey of the States

Words Alive: What Is the Connection Between Literacy and Economic Development?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What Is Health Literacy?

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Healthy People 2020

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