Facts & Research

Basic Literacy & Numeracy

Causes of Low Adult Literacy in the US

August 21, 2023


Contributed by adult foundational literacy consultant and ProLiteracy Board Member David Rosen; originally published on his blog 


Why does the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with free public education in every state and school district, have so many adults with low literacy? Why does this matter, and what can we do about it? 

Low adult literacy rates in the United States, currently ranging upwards of 43 million people, pose significant challenges for individuals, families, communities, the U.S. economy, our society, and our nation. Many factors contribute to this problem, some of which impact adults who, as children, have attended schools in the US. This article explores various factors that hinder adults who want to learn to read and write in English, highlights the complexities surrounding the attainment of adult literacy, emphasizes the need for comprehensive solutions, and provides specific policy recommendations to address the challenge. 

Factors that have led to low adult literacy rates 

Learning disabilities for immigrants and native speakers of English. Undiagnosed learning disabilities, like dyslexia or specific learning disorders, can significantly impact an individual’s ability to acquire and develop literacy skills. Without proper diagnosis and targeted research-based interventions, affected individuals may struggle with reading comprehension, decoding words, and spelling. Adults with undiagnosed dyslexia, for example, may have spent years trying to make sense of written text. That could cause frustration, discouragement, low self-image, and what some have described as shame due to their difficulties in reading and writing effectively. 

Lack of English language skills for immigrants. For immigrants, one of the primary obstacles to adult literacy is lack of proficiency in the English language. For individuals whose first language is not English, the transition to reading and writing in English can be particularly challenging, impeding their overall literacy development. For adult immigrants in the U.S. who lack prior exposure to English, the process of learning a new language, including acquiring reading and writing skills, affects their ability to communicate effectively, find work with family-supporting wages, and participate in a democratic society. 

Immigrants’ lack of reading and writing skills in their first language. In addition to English language proficiency, individuals who have not developed strong reading and writing skills in their first language face difficulties in transferring those reading and writing skills to English. This challenge is also exemplified in individuals who grew up in households where limited literacy resources were available. These adults may struggle with basic decoding skills, making it hard for them to grasp the complexities of reading and writing in any language, including English. 

Long waiting lists for adult English language classes for immigrants. Limited availability of classes and long waiting lists for publicly funded adult English language classes in the US delay immigrants’ access to vital instruction and support needed to improve their literacy skills. Consider the case of a motivated adult, who is seeking to improve their English literacy, facing a wait list of several months or even years for enrollment in an English language class. The prolonged delay in receiving formal language instruction may hinder their progress and perpetuate their struggle to read and write effectively. 

Lack of implementation of reading intervention programs for children in schools. Inadequate implementation of research-based reading intervention programs in schools can contribute to low child-literacy rates. When struggling readers do not receive timely and effective interventions during their schooling years, they may continue to face literacy difficulties as adults. Consider a student who struggled with reading in elementary school but did not receive sufficient support or intervention to address their challenges. As they grow older, their reading skills may remain below grade level, making it challenging for them to comprehend complex texts and express themselves through writing. This may also make it difficult for them to learn other elementary and secondary school content, for example, in social studies, science, and other subjects. 

Lack of literate adult role models during childhood. Growing up without literate adult role models at home and in one’s community can hamper the development of literacy skills. Role models are crucial in fostering a love for reading and writing, and, without their influence, individuals may have limited exposure to literacy-rich environments. For example, a child growing up in a household where parents, grandparents, older siblings, and other family members have limited literacy skills themselves may not receive the necessary encouragement and support to develop strong reading and writing abilities. 

Family poverty. The burden of poverty places significant constraints on individuals’ educational opportunities. Limited access to books, educational resources, and enrichment activities can hinder literacy development, perpetuating the cycle of low literacy rates within families and communities. Consider a family struggling to make ends meet, where buying books or providing educational materials is a luxury they cannot afford. Children growing up in such circumstances often lack the necessary resources to cultivate their literacy skills, impacting their ability to read and write proficiently as adults. In addition, children who do not have adequate nutrition, a quiet place to read or study, good health care, and whose other basic needs have not been met, may also have limited opportunities to improve their reading, writing, and other basic skills. 

Violence in the community or school. Exposure to violence in one’s neighborhood, community, or school can disrupt educational experiences and create an environment that is not conducive to learning. Such traumatic experiences may negatively impact children’s or adults’ abilities to acquire literacy skills, further exacerbating low literacy rates. For instance, a student attending a school in a high-crime neighborhood may constantly face disruptions, anxiety, and fear, impeding their concentration and hindering their engagement in academic activities, including reading and writing. 

Leaving school at a young age for personal reasons. Many adults face literacy challenges due to leaving school at a young age. Whether due to pregnancy, familial responsibilities, or the need to work, dropping out of school interrupts formal education and limits opportunities for developing strong literacy skills. Consider teenagers who drop out of school to support their family financially. Without completing their education, they are likely to have limited literacy skills. It will be difficult for them to find stable employment and achieve their full potential, resulting in a lifetime of low wages or poverty. 

Moving between schools throughout childhood. Frequent moves between schools can disrupt the continuity of education, resulting in learning gaps and missed opportunities for developing foundational literacy skills that may not be addressed later in school. The lack of stability and consistency in educational environments can impede literacy development and hinder individuals’ ability to read and write effectively.Lack of resources for diagnosing and remediating learning differences. The scarcity of resources for diagnosing and remediating learning differences or disabilities, such as dyslexia, poses significant challenges for both children and adults struggling with literacy. Without proper assessment and targeted interventions, these individuals may continue to face difficulties in acquiring adequate literacy skills. Consider adults who suspect they have a learning difference or disability but lack access to affordable diagnostic services and specialized literacy programs. Without the needed resources, they may struggle to overcome their literacy challenges and reach their full potential. 

Public Policy Recommendations to Address these Adult Literacy Challenges

To effectively meet the challenges surrounding adult literacy in the United States, comprehensive public policy measures are needed. The following recommendations can help address the identified factors hindering adults from learning to read and write in English: 

1. Increase public funding for and availability of adult foundational education programs. 

    • Allocate additional federal, state, and local resources to expand the capacity of adult English language classes and to reduce waiting lists. 
    • Establish partnerships between educational institutions, community organizations, public libraries, employers, and organized labor to provide accessible and affordable literacy programs for adults. 
    • Increase funding for two-generation (2Gen) literacy programs that support preschool children’s reading readiness and their parents and caregivers who may need adult literacy and other adult foundational education instruction. 
    • Prioritize funding for evidence-based reading intervention programs in schools, with a specific focus on supporting struggling readers and individuals with learning disabilities.

2. Improve access to diagnostic and remediation services. 

    • Increase funding for the assessment and diagnosis of learning disabilities, including specific learning disorders such as dyslexia, to ensure early identification and appropriate support. 
    • Establish guidelines and standards for the provision of specialized literacy interventions for adults with learning disabilities, ensuring they have access to diagnosis of reading difficulties, targeted instruction, and accommodations.

3. Increase funding for adult literacy research that is easily accessible, disseminated in a wide range of venues, and easily found in searches on reliable websites. 

4. Enhance professional development for educators. 

    • Invest in ongoing professional development programs for teachers, tutors, and instructors working with adult learners to equip them with effective strategies and approaches for teaching literacy skills. 
    • Promote collaboration and knowledge-sharing among educators, researchers, and practitioners, at both the national and state levels, so they may stay updated with best practices in adult literacy instruction.

5. Foster literacy-rich environments. 

    • Promote initiatives in community-based organizations, libraries, and community health centers and hospitals to encourage children’s and adults’ reading and writing, such as book clubs, writing workshops, and literacy events. 
    • Take advantage of free online book websites for children, such as Worldreader. 
    • Increase access to libraries, the internet, and internet technology for under-served communities, ensuring that individuals have the necessary tools to improve their literacy skills.

6. Support adult learners with diverse needs. 

    • Develop flexible learning options, including online platforms, distance learning, hybrid and blended learning programs, HyFlex learning models, or adult literacy apps, to accommodate the needs of adult learners who face time constraints or geographic barriers. 
    • Expand funding for wraparound services, such as childcare, transportation, counseling, affordable housing, free or low-cost community health services, and others, to remove practical barriers that prevent adults from participating in literacy programs.

7. Raise public awareness and increase advocacy. 

    • Launch public awareness campaigns to address the stigma associated with adult literacy challenges and emphasize the importance of lifelong learning. 
    • Advocate for policies that prioritize literacy initiatives at local, state, and national levels, urging policymakers to recognize the significance of adult literacy and invest in effective solutions. 
    • Help legislators and other policymakers who may be supportive of education to understand the need for adult literacy and to make it a priority.

By implementing these policy recommendations, it is possible to create a supportive ecosystem that empowers adults with the necessary skills and resources to improve their literacy. A multi-faceted approach, encompassing education, community engagement, and public support, is vital for addressing the complex factors contributing to low adult literacy rates and promoting a more literate and inclusive society. 


The low adult literacy rates in the United States stem from many complex factors. Solving this problem requires a comprehensive approach that addresses language proficiency, early intervention, resource and support access, literacy-rich environments, and, for adults who were not able to learn to read in school or who came as immigrants without literacy skills, a greatly expanded, enhanced, and funded adult literacy system. By acknowledging and addressing these factors, we can improve adult literacy rates and ensure that all individuals and families have the opportunity to acquire essential literacy skills for success in their personal and working lives.