Across the Nation

Two men work together on paperwork

  • More than 36 million adults in the United States cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third-grade level.¹
  • Low literacy costs the United States at least $225 billion each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.¹
  • Some $232 billion in annual health care costs is linked to low adult literacy skills.¹
  • 1.5 million people with the lowest levels of literacy are incarcerated. A one percent increase in the high school completion rate of all men ages 20-60 would save the US as much as $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime.²
  • A one percent increase in average literacy rates yields a 1.5 percent permanent increase in the GDP or a $2.3 billion dollar increase.²
  • Forty-three percent of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty.¹
  • Sixty-one percent of low-income children have no books at home.42
  • By age two, poor children are already behind their peers in listening, counting, and other skills essential to literacy, and by age five, a typical middle-class child recognizes 22 letters of the alphabet, compared to nine for a child from a low-income family.43
  • Half of the achievement gap between rich and poor children starts before kindergarten. One in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students misses nearly a month of school every year. And low-income children lose two to three months of reading achievement each summer.12
  • A mother’s reading skill is the greatest determinant of her child’s academic success.² Children whose parents have low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years, or drop out.11

And yet, less than ten percent of the adults in need of reading help in the United States are receiving services.¹

In California

  • According to estimates released in 2020 by the National Center for Education Statistics, 28 percent of Californians have a literacy proficiency level that is at or below Level 1. 36 percent of Californians have a numeracy level that is at or below Level 1.44
  • Estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics show 23 percent of California adults lacking basic prose skills in 2003, compared to 15 percent in 1992 (about an eight percent rise) and compared to a 12 percent national average.³
  • According to a recent Kids Count Profile for California and the United States, in 2017, 69 percent of California’s fourth graders were not proficient in reading.4
  • In 2017, 71 percent of California’s eighth graders were not proficient in math, and in 2016-2017, 17 percent of high-schoolers did not graduate on time.5
  • On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scale, which ranges from 0 to 500, the average score of fourth-grade students in California was 215—lower than the average score of 221 for public school students in the nation.6 The average score of eighth-grade students in California was 263—also lower than the average score of 265 for public school students in the nation.7
  • There are also 1.9 million children currently experiencing food insecurity in California.8 In 2017, fourth grade students who were eligible for a free or reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low family income, had an average score that was 33 points lower than students who weren’t eligible for lunches.9 Eighth grade students had an average score that was 28 points lower than that for students who weren’t eligible.10

Positive Interventions in California’s Public Libraries

Two women work at tableLibrary literacy programs use evidence-based techniques to provide one-to-one and small group tutoring and instruction. Programs are learner-driven and they support adults in setting and achieving their personal goals. They connect learners with books, programming, and other library resources. And they provide opportunities for learners to develop and use leadership skills.

Research shows that the types of adult and family literacy programs that are provided by California’s public libraries benefit adults, children, and families.

Adult Literacy

  • Goal-setting is an effective tool that increases motivation, positively affects behavior, and energizes learners to persist (Cabral-Márquez, 2015).13
  • Instructional materials that are contextually relevant and relatable are effective, likely because they increase motivation (Kruidenier et al, 2010).14
  • Incorporating everyday activities and setting appropriate goals that include mastery of tasks that allow learners to compare their own learning before and after instruction (rather than the performance of others) are principles of effective instruction (National Research Council of the National Academies, 2012).15
  • Goal-setting, reflective essay writing, and self-selected reading projects are effective strategies in improving the literacy skills of adult learners (Rodrick, 2017).16
  • Understanding learners’ motivations and barriers is critical to success, and learners are more likely to be engaged when the skills training is relevant and includes basic skills, vocational skills, and family literacy components (Windisch, 2016).17
  • Participants in adult literacy education experience gains in employment; increases in earning; improved reading, writing, and numeracy skills; gains in GED acquisition; and improved self-image. Learners report literacy education positively impacts involvement in their children’s schoolwork, and they report achieving personal goals as a result of participation (Beder, 1999).35
  • More literate adults have higher rates of employment, more access to workplace training, and higher weekly and lifetime incomes. Higher education correlates with increased voter participation, higher rates of citizenship among immigrants, and more volunteerism and civic engagement, and correlates with lower incarceration rates, better access to healthcare, and more positive self-reported health. (National Commission on Adult Literacy, 2008).37
  • Literacy rates positively correlate with participants’ subjective well-being, pluralist world views, sense of trust of others, concern for the environment over economic prosperity, political engagement, and openness to new experiences (Post, 2016).38
  • Participants in adult basic skills programming had higher incomes than non-participants, and intense participation correlated positively with even higher income (Reder, 2014).39

Family Literacy

  • In evaluating the effectiveness of Raising a Reader programming, the authors report parents and children who participated in supplemental parent training in groups (family workshops similar to early literacy programming in libraries) had significantly higher literacy skills post-test scores than those who did not. (Anthony et al, 2014).18
  • Interactions between parent and child in the first year of life shape brain development. Healthy “serve and return” interactions in which parent and child respond to each other’s vocalizations and gestures shape brain development necessary for educational success, healthy relationships, economic productivity, and ultimately, quality parenting of the next generation (Center on the Developing Child, 2007).19
  • Access to books improves children’s reading skills. Children with better access to print materials have more positive attitudes toward reading and learning (Lindsay, 2010).20
  • Young children who are read to regularly have better understanding of language, larger vocabularies, and higher cognitive skills, regardless of their economic background (Raikes et al, 2006).21
  • Greater exposure to books is related to the development of vocabulary and comprehension skills, and these in turn influence children’s successful reading by third grade. Early literacy skills resulting from parental engagement can predict word reading by the end of grade one (Senechal, 2002).22
  • A majority of studies demonstrate a positive link between parental involvement and the literacy and math skills of children aged three to eight (Van Voorhis et al, 2013).23
  • Library programs that incorporate culturally and linguistically-relevant materials and activities can engage people who initially resist because they expect a school-type environment, and programming enables families to build a sense of community and identity as they learn (Davila et al, 2017).24
  • Adult learners enrolled in family literacy programming stay enrolled longer than those in traditional literacy programming, and demonstrated improved educational success and economic independence, and increased involvement in their children’s education (Peyton, 2007).25
  • Parent-child book reading can improve not only the children’s language and literacy but the psychosocial functioning of the parents (Xie, 2018).26
  • The children of adults enrolled in high-performing, comprehensive, family-centered learning programs experienced educational success, and parents were more engaged with and involved in their children’s schooling (Levesque, 2013).36
  • Mothers’ reading skills were the greatest predictor of their children’s future academic success. The mother’s reading skills outweighed family or neighborhood income.40
  • Parents enrolled in family literacy programs reported improved literacy skills and more involvement in their children’s school work; they felt more self-confident; and they were willing to enroll in further education and believed the education was improving their job prospects. 41

The Library Setting

  • Low literacy is often accompanied by social isolation, humiliation, and frustration. Discussing books with others can foster a lifelong love of reading (Bossaller, 2009).27
  • For immigrant women, the library can offer a place for observing the culture of the new country, an arena for comfort and consolation, activity and participation, and support in developing friendships and acclimating to a new culture (Branyon, 2017).28
  • Library programming is free and scheduled at times convenient for families, it is open to all families, and it reaches groups that benefit most–children and families in high-need communities who are likely to enter school less prepared than middle and upper income peers (Celano and Neuman, 2015).29
  • Families believe libraries are supportive to children’s learning and development, and families living in poverty are more likely to visit the library over any other community center or venue (store, movies, community centers) and more likely to turn to libraries for training, job searches, and services for immigrants and first-generation Americans (Horrigan, 2015).30
  • Libraries are dedicated to creating literate environments that support basic education for all. Libraries are centrally located in neighborhoods; open at hours convenient to users; and provide access to materials and instruction by service oriented, approachable, and culturally sensitive staff (Krolak, 2005).31
  • Families that participate in literacy activities are able to develop knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that foster the development of young children. Parents educated about the importance of pre-literacy skills and activities stay involved with children’s education and set children up to succeed. Libraries strengthen families from diverse backgrounds with adult learning opportunities including literacy and digital literacy (Lopez et al, 2016).32
  • New immigrants appreciate and admire the library, they access its collections, and participate in conversation groups (van der Linden et al, 2014).33
  • Librarians who are skilled at readers’ advisory can connect new adult learners to interesting materials that will spark their love of learning, expand their knowledge base, and improve their reading skills (Weibel, 2001).34



Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kids County Data Book

National Center for Education Statistics

ProLiteracy Facts About Adult Literacy




² Literacy for All: Adult literacy through Libraries. (ALA, 2019)

³ National Center for Education Statistics, “State & County Estimates of Low Literacy,” 1992 and 2003 data, available at

4 2019 Kids Count Profile for California and the U.S., 2017 data, available at

5 2019 Kids Count Profile for California and the U.S., 2017 data, available at

6 National Center for Education Statistics. “The Nation’s Report Card: 2017 Reading State Snapshot Report,” Grade 4, available at



9 National Center for Education Statistics. “The Nation’s Report Card: 2017 Reading State Snapshot Report,” Grade 4, available at

10 National Center for Education Statistics. “The Nation’s Report Card: 2017 Reading State Snapshot Report,” Grade 8, available at

11 ProLiteracy U.S. Adult Literacy Facts, available at

12 Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, available at

13 Cabral-Márquez, C. (2015). Motivating readers: Helping students set and attain personal reading goals. Reading Teacher, 68(6), 464–472.

14 Kruidenier, J. R., MacArthur, C. A., & Wrigley, H. S. (2010). Adult Education Literacy Instruction: A Review of the Research. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved from

15 National Research Council of the National Academies (2012). Improving adult literacy instruction: Supporting learning and motivation. The National Academies Press. Retrieved from

16 Rodrick, K. (2017). Instructional strategies for adult literacy education. Proceedings of the Multidisciplinary Academic Conference, 420–429.

17 Windisch, H. C. (2016). How to motivate adults with low literacy and numeracy skills to engage and persist in learning: A literature review of policy interventions. International Review of Education, 62(3), 279–297.

18 Anthony, J. L., Williams, J. M., Zhang, Z., & Landry, S. H. (2014). Experimental evaluation of the value added by Raising a Reader and supplemental parent training in shared reading. Early Education and Development25, 493–514. Retrieved from

19 Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief). Retrieved from

20 Lindsay, J. (2010). Children’s access to print material and education-related outcomes: Findings from a meta-analytic review. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates. Summary retrieved from

21 Raikes, H., Pan, B.A., Luze, G.J., Tamis-LeMonda, C.S., Brooks-Gunn, J., Constantine, J., Tarullo, L.B., Raikes, H.A., & Rodriguez, E. (2006). Mother-child bookreading in low-income families: Correlates and outcomes during the first three years of life. Child Development, 77(4), 924-952. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00911.x

22 Senechal, M., & Lefevre, J.-A. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children’s reading skills: a five-year longitudinal study. Child Development, (2), 445. Retrieved from

23 Van Voorhis, F. L., M. F. Maier, J. L. Epstein, C. M. Lloyd, and T. Leung. (2013). The impact of iamily Involvement on the education of children ages 3 to 8: A focus on literacy and math achievement outcomes and social-emotional skills. New York: MDRC. Retrieved from

24 Dávila, D., Noguerón, S., & Vasquez-Dominguez, M. (2017). The latinx family: Learning y la literatura at the library. Bilingual Review, 33(5), 33-49.

25 Peyton, T. (2007). Family Literacy in Adult Education: The Federal and State Support Role. Prepared for the National Commission on Adult Literacy. Retrieved from

26 Xie, Q.; Chan, C.H.Y., Ji, Qingying, J., & Chan, C.L.W. (2018). Psychosocial effects of parent-child book reading interventions: A meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 141(4). doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-2675

27 Bossaller, J., & Budd, J. M. (2009). MAKING THE JUMP: The Need for a Phenomenological Shift through the Literature Experience in the Adult Literacy Classroom. Progressive Librarian, (33), 3–17.

28 Branyon, A. P. (2017). “A Home for Me When I Am So Far from Home”: Perceptions of Libraries by Immigrant Mothers in Language Acquisition and Cultural Acclimation. Public Library Quarterly, 36(3), 185–198. doi:10.1080/01616846.2017.1316147

29 Celano, D. C., & Neuman, S. B. (2015). Libraries emerging as leaders in parent engagement. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(7), 30.

30 Horrigan, John. (2015). Libraries at the crossroads. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

31 Krolak, L. (2005). The role of libraries in the creation of literate environments. Paper commissioned for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006, Literacy for Life. Retrieved from

32 Lopez, M.E., Caspe, M. & McWilliams, L. (2016). Public Libraries: A Vital Space for Family Engagement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project. Retrieved from

33 van der Linden, K., Bartlett, J., & Beheshti, J. (2014). New immigrants’ perceptions and awareness of public library services. Canadian Journal of Information & Library Sciences, 38(2), 65–79. doi:10.1353/ils.2014.0008

34 Weibel, M. C. (2001). From reading words to reading the sorld: Readers’ advisory for adult literacy students. Acquisitions Librarian, 13(25), 91.

35 Beder, H. (1999). The outcomes and impacts of adult literacy education in the United States. The National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Retrieved from

36 Levesque, J. (2013). Meta analysis of the studies of high performing family literacy programs. National Center for Families Learning. Retrieved from

37 National Commission on Adult Literacy. (2008). Reach higher, America: Overcoming crisis in the U.S. workforce. Retrieved from

38 Post, D. (2016). Adult Literacy Benefits? New Opportunities for Research into Sustainable Development. International Review of Education, 62(6), 751–770.

39 Reder, S. (2014). Research Brief: The impact of ABS program participation on long-term economic outcomes. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

40 Sastry, N., & Pebley, A. R. (2010). Family and neighborhood sources of socioeconomic inequality in children’s achievement. Demography, (3), 777.

41 Swain, J., Welby, S., Brooks, G., Bosley, S., Frumkin, L., Fairfax-Cholmeley, Perez, A. &Cara, O. (2009). Learning literacy together: The impact and effectiveness of family literacy on parents, children, families and schools. National Research and Development Centre. Retrieved from:

42 Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, available at:

43 Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, available at:

44 See the US PIAAC Skills Map, available at: