By assigning people to a given skill level, the impression may be formed that the person has no ability to perform higher level tasks. But this is wrong. Even though people may be assigned to a lower skill level, this does not mean that they are totally incapable of performing tasks at higher skill levels. In the NALS survey, respondents were asked to rate themselves as to how well they thought they could read and write English. Of those categorized as Level 1 literates, some 66 to 75 percent said they could read and write "well" or "very well." The NALS authors referred to this as the "gap between performance and perception," meaning that the literacy skills of those in Level I are low by NALS methods of setting standards for inclusion at one or another level of skill. So the self-perceived skills of the vast majority of those categorized as Level 1 literates, who rated themselves as "well" or "very well" as literates, must be incorrect. They go on to say that "Such a mismatch may well have a significant impact on efforts to provide education and training to adults: Those who do not believe they have a problem will be less likely to seek out such services or less willing to take advantage of services that might be available to them.1 p. 20
But it is possible that many adults fabled as Level 1 literates perceive themselves as quite literate because, as indicated above, they are able to perform quite a few tasks at higher levels, even a few at Level 5. It must be kept in mind that simply because people are assigned to a lower level category of literacy level, this does not mean that they are entirely incapable of performing tasks at higher skill levels. They simply do not have a .80 probability of performing higher level tasks. That is, they cannot perform them with the same high level of probability that is required to be categorized at a higher level. This is important to keep in mind when one discusses the numbers of adults in the different skill levels. The numbers can be changed dramatically simply by changing the criterion for being categorized into the different levels.4 For instance, if instead of requiring that people be able to do 80 percent of the average tasks in a given level, the criterion were changed to being able to do 70 percent of the tasks, then the numbers of people assigned to the lower levels would decrease dramatically.
By using the method of "literacy levels" to categorize people's literacy skills, one may be lead to conclude that people assigned to a given level of skill cannot perform the more demanding types of tasks found at higher levels of skill. Yet that is incorrect and provides an inaccurate indication of the full range of people's literacy skills. Quite possibly, people's perceptions of their literacy ability may be more accurate than the impressions that might be created by the use of the five NALS literacy levels.
Some Major Findings from the NALS
The NALS reported data on the literacy scores of adults across a wide range of age, for persons with special health conditions, for ethnic groups, and for incarcerated populations. Some of the key findings for each of these groups are summarized below.
Literacy and Age. The NALS report indicated that, generally, both education and literacy skills increased for adults from ages 16-18 up to ages 40-54, and then skills dropped rapidly. Adults 55 -64 and those 65 or older performed well below the levels of younger adults, even though their average years of education was not much different from the 16-18 year olds. Summarizing across the three literacy scales, about 44-48 percent of those adults categorized in Level 1 were aged 55 or older, and 32-35 percent were 65 years old or older. Some 28-32 percent of those in Level 2 were 55 years old or older, and 16-18 percent were 65 or older.