Facts & Research

Basic Literacy & Numeracy

How Low Literacy Affects the Ability to Perform Daily Tasks

March 14, 2023

attractive business woman waiting for the bus while checking timetables 2023/07/Reading-a-sign.jpg

During National Reading Month, we celebrate the importance of reading and promote a love of reading across America. We celebrate with the thousands of adults who have worked, or are working, to build their literacy skills so they, too, can experience the benefits and joy of reading. 

However, there are 43 million American adults who struggle to read beyond a third-grade level. 

What do we mean by a third-grade level?  

This is the basis for what we call functional literacy. UNESCO says functional literacy is a person’s ability to engage with texts from any medium (e.g., forms, bus signs, newspapers) and function effectively and progressively in their life and/or in their community through comprehension. Essentially, functional literacy is making meaning of and using the different types of texts someone encounters to complete everyday tasks and navigate their way through life. 

There are three text-related tasks we encounter daily that define functional literacy: prose tasks, document tasks, and quantitative tasks. 

Prose tasks involve the ability to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts such as news articles and instructional materials. 

Locating information in a newspaper article, comparing different points of views in editorials, and interpreting the theme of a poem are examples of prose tasks. 

Document tasks involve the ability to search, comprehend, and use information from noncontinuous texts such as bus or train schedules, job applications, maps, and food or medicine labels. 

Finding out when and where a train will leave the station, answering qualifications on a job application, and understanding what kinds of nutrients are in a can of soup are examples of document tasks. 

Quantitative tasks involve the ability to identify and perform computations using numbers embedded in printed materials. 

Balancing a checkbook, managing and understanding utility or medical bills, and calculating the interest on a loan are examples of quantitative tasks. 

These activities are common. Yet millions of adults do not have the literacy skills to complete them.   

People at these lowest levels of literacy can do only the most basic tasks that include identifiable words or numbers—such as signing their name or performing basic addition. They cannot use texts to extract and understand information.  

This means they cannot understand medicine labels, they cannot follow directions at the voting booth, they cannot read to their children or understand the materials that come from their children’s teachers. .  

And because they lack the literacy skills needed to complete a job application or to budget on a basic level, they struggle to find meaningful employment and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. 

This can have major repercussions on a person’s life and the health of a community. 

It is estimated that if we increased the reading level of all American adults to at least a sixth-grade level, we could generate an additional $2.2 trillion in income each year. 

So, when we say 43 million Americans can’t read above a third-grade level, it’s not arbitrary. We can improve the well-being of families and strengthen communities in the form of improved health, income, and civic engagement with increased literacy levels. 


To build healthier communities, more money needs to be allocated to adult education. Use our Advocacy Toolkit to learn how to engage policymakers where you live.

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