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What can the Literacy Gap map still tell us about reading?

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December 12, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PST December 12, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PSTth, December 12, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PST

The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy released state- and city-wide literacy data in September 2020 that demonstrates the connections between literacy, health, income and education on a nationwide scale. The Literacy Gap Map takes a county-level view and calculates literacy averages across all 50 states, focusing data on 21 key cities as a means of illustrating the impact of low literacy.


The map itself provides data on several fronts:


·      Adult literacy levels 

·      Fourth-grade reading levels 

·      Poverty

·      Unemployment

·      Median income 

·      High school diploma attainment

·      Healthcare access


It’s a tool that was designed to put low literacy and the consequences of low literacy on the map, as well as provide a vast amount of data that might be used to inform public policy, resource development and key decision-making on the topic of literacy and learning.


What does the Literacy Gap Map tell us?


It tells us that there are around 36 million adults in the US who are unable to read, write and comprehend text at a basic level. This degree of literacy differences prevents around 1 in 5 of them from fully engaging in society, and limits opportunities across the life course, often lying at the centre of multigenerational poverty, low participation in education, and poor mental and physical health.


Some geographic regions are more heavily impacted than others. In the south, there are many large clusters of low literacy counties, particularly along the Mississippi River, in Western Alabama, and from Georgia up through the Carolinas. The regions with the lowest literacy scores in the country include parts of California, Texas’ Starr County, and parts of Florida.


It also highlights that in certain regions, the low literacy rates likely stem from the percentage of non-English speaking people resident in them. There are many non-English speaking people in Starr County and Miami-Dade Country, for example: 


Starr County, TX – 2020

41% of Households speak ‘Limited English’

69% of Adults lack Basic Literacy Skills 


Miami-Dade County, FL – 2020

26% of households speak ‘Limited English’

38% of Adults lack basic Literacy Skills


Additionally, the map focuses on the manner in which literacy has a powerful effect on health and income. Communities with low literacy averages often find that their residents also struggle to access healthcare and lead healthy lives; and the map also makes a point to highlight that the communities with the lowest prose literacy scores in the US are some of the most economically disadvantaged regions in the country.

What’s happened since 2020?


The Literacy Gap Map provides us with a huge amount of data, and under normal circumstances, data finalised in 2020 would still be extremely applicable when it comes to informing policy, resourcing and decision-making.  


It hasn’t exactly been an uneventful two years, though. Since September 2020, the US has had to deal with a large amount of remote learning, long lockdowns, a spike in job losses and the current mounting cost of living crisis. All of these are areas that can compromise literacy and learning. The Literacy Gap Map points to the lack of access to education and economic disadvantage as leading causes of low literacy – so many suspect that the picture may be bleaker than it appeared in 2020, especially in some areas of the country.

Pressures on Adult Literacy in America


It’s well-acknowledged that the pandemic has worsened the literacy crisis in America. It evidently didn’t cause it- even in 2019, results on national and international exams showed stagnant or declining American performance, and widening gaps between high and low performers- but its impact on literacy cannot be understated. 


When we break it down and look at the numbers, the pandemic is widely agreed to have erased around two decades of progress in Math and Reading for those still in education. It is also evident that it is vulnerable learners who have borne the worst of the effects. With 2022’s NAEP Scores also indicating that Maths and Reading scores are dropping across the US at a rate higher than most expected, it looks like we might be at the beginning of a curve that sees adult literacy rates fall over the next decade due to the two years learners spent in pandemic learning conditions. The rescue effort by educators has been truly Herculean, but the data indicates we might see things get worse before they get better as this generation grows into adulthood.


Add to this the fact that the pandemic robbed many current adult English Language Learners of opportunities to practice, attend language classes and be immersed in English-speaking environments, and we begin to generate a picture of adult literacy on the cusp of a potentially dramatic dip. So, all of this raises the question – just how applicable is 2020 data when so many pressures have been exerted on adult literacy in the past twenty-five months?


2020 vs. 2022


For 2022 figures, we’re at a disadvantage: The Barbara Bush Foundation data took huge state sample sizes and mined existing data to create a more accurate picture of literacy within localities. Many of these states haven’t surveyed adult literacy in any meaningful way since 2020, so in terms of figures comparable, we’re limited to data from larger states with larger administrations that have had funds and policy reasoning to explore adult literacy post-pandemic.


If we take a sample of localities and compare adult literacy data from those two years, an unexpected pattern begins to emerge: 

So, why are 2022’s results lower when all other data indicates that education has been compromised?


 There are a number of theories to consider. The first is that the pandemic didn’t really have much of an impact on the literacy levels of learners on the cusp of adulthood, who have already developed their literacy skills to a point. As these people pass out of the school system into adult data and older generations (historically with far lower literacy rates) pass away, the average moves higher, as there are less weak literacy individuals in the sample size. 


This is likely to have had a reasonable effect on the data – but to a much smaller extent than the figures for some of these states show.

The second theory is that the 2022 data- individually sourced state data from state sources, non-profits and Gallup analysis of Department for Education data- lacks the depth of data on adults specifically that of the Literacy Gap Map, which takes into account longitudinal data from:


·      The American Community Survey

·      Community Health Status Indicators

·      Prose Literacy Scores from the Assessment of Adult Literacy

·      NAEP Reading Scores

·      The National Literacy Directory 


The third – and perhaps most important theory – is that the Literacy Gap Map doesn’t only include data from the year 2020. Many of these sources predate that by up to a decade or more, so we’re not actually viewing a snapshot of life in 2020 – we’re viewing a conglomerate data pool from up to 2020. When we consider that literacy has usually improved year on year, at least to some degree, we realise we’re looking at data from years at the beginning of that curve, as well as at our end of it, so these figures will be weighting the Bush data curve for 2020 using data from 2003, 2012, 2016. 

The fourth theory is recovery – and whilst it’s happening slowly and at great effort of the educator community, positive change is happening all over the country as learners pick up from where they left off, realign their skills, and get learning back on track. 


Key Takeaways


Whether we regard the Literacy Gap Map as a gold standard of data in 2022 or not isn’t of enormous relevance to how we look at adult literacy in the US. What matters is that there are some states where, whether we look at figures from 2020, 2022 or even 2003, literacy is far lower than it should be. This means that generations of adults are experiencing the world at a disadvantage due to their low literacy, something that stems from a failure to develop sufficient literacy skills either in youth or as an English Language Learner. Our key takeaway should be that reading support is vital in addressing the adult literacy crisis – and not only for adults, but long before individuals reach adulthood too.  


This means intervention, assessment, and the implementation of frameworks and devices that can help learners develop vital literacy skills and use them to create positive impact on their lives as they move through grade school, college, and out of the other side. To find out more about Scanning Pens’ award-winning reading support device that can transform the literacy learning experience and to claim your 30-Day Free Trial for Schools, check out C-Pen Reader 2.