Gregory Hill, a former student of the Los Angeles Public Library adult literacy program. Screenshot from LA Public Library/YouTube. Credit: LA Public Library
While at the library making copies one day in 2018, Gregory Hill looked up and saw a sign that read “Adult Literacy Center: Read, Learn Help.” At 65-years-old, he thought his chances of fulfilling his lifelong dream of learning to read and write were “pretty slim.”
That all changed that day thanks to a program run by the Los Angeles Public Library. He was paired with a tutor — a volunteer attending nursing school — who helped him see his dreams come true.
“It opened up doors that I thought would never be open at the age of 65 and the challenges that I’ve gone through in my life,” an emotional Hill explained in a video about the program’s impact.
Hill was one of the 43 million adults in the United States who struggled with adult literacy — people who have aged out of the K-12 system but cannot read, write, or do math above a third-grade level. It’s a problem that costs our economy trillions of dollars every year, and makes it more difficult for people to live healthy, fulfilled lives — but as the library’s program shows, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Literacy Among Black Adults
Up-to-date adult literacy data, especially broken down into race and ethnicity demographics, is hard to come by. A 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, which cited data from 2012 and 2014, found that 23% of Black adults in the country were considered to be low literacy, compared to 35% of white adults and 34% of Hispanic adults.
For Black adults, issues with literacy have come about in a variety of ways. We can trace the problem back to Jim Crow laws treating Black people “as second-class citizens,” says Dr. Brett Grant, a postdoctoral fellow at the Black Education Research Collective at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Experts like Grant say understanding why Black people have lower literacy rates deserves more attention.
He echoes what scholars and Critical Race theorists have been saying: “We have to address issues of racism in this country, and how it embeds itself in the policies and practices that impact the kinds of education that people receive.”
While the school-to-prison pipeline and how educators push Black students out of school is an openly discussed issue, domestic responsibilities also play a factor — like students needing to stay home to help care for family members.
“It’s a different way of being pulled out of the educational system,” says Kelly Tyler, the managing librarian for the Office of Education and Literacy for the Los Angeles Public Library.
If you’re someone who has never struggled with your education, it might not occur to you that this isn’t everybody’s experience, Tyler says. People who don’t earn a high school diploma have higher unemployment rates and lower earnings, and they are also more likely to be incarcerated.
These problems show up, says Tyler, when it comes to supporting adults who have limited health literacy because they’re more likely to use emergency services or be hospitalized. In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been difficult to get information to people with lower reading levels or comprehension, especially concerning the constantly changing vaccine and mask information.
When it comes to any myths or misunderstandings surrounding adult literacy, or barriers to lowering the rates, Grant says “it’s really complicated” and full of nuance. Of course a lack of positive representation in the media is an issue, along with the stereotype of “you sound white,” but it all comes down to the environment in which people grew up and how they were socialized.
“We need to push back against these conceptions,” Grant says.
Grant also says it’s important to expand the understanding of adult literacy beyond reading, writing, and math. The mainstream definition often leaves out ecological literacy, which examines who we build relationships, and environmental and health literacies.