The Impact of Low Literacy During a Public Health Crisis

Anita Caref
August 19, 2020

Low literacy affects tens of millions of people, with devastating consequences. Whether that’s through someone’s health and well-being, their ability to earn family-sustaining wages, supporting their children’s success in school, or in any number of other ways, the statistics are grim.

More than 36 million adults in the U.S. cannot read, write, or do math above a third-grade level. 43% of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty (ProLiteracy). 

Those numbers, however, don’t tell the whole story. When people don’t have the skills to understand or evaluate basic health information during the COVID-19 pandemic, the dangerous effects of low literacy are amplified. Society’s most vulnerable are especially at risk.

The most commonly accepted definition of literacy is simply the ability to read and write. A more sophisticated definition that better reflects life in the 21st century comes to us from UNESCO: “An ability to understand, identify, interpret, create, communicate, and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” (2004, 2017).

At the center of all those skills? Reading.

In my forty years of work in adult literacy, I have known countless students who think reading means “saying the words,” but it’s so much more: the ability to understand what words mean, not just individually, but in meaningful sentences and paragraphs.

Literacy doesn’t just stop at reading and understanding words on paper. Many other kinds of literacy are also important for people to live healthy, productive lives and meaningfully participate in society:

  • Mathematical literacy is the ability to understand and work with numbers and apply them to real life (Merriam-Webster).  It includes the ability to understand and analyze data, including charts, graphs, and statistics. Low mathematical literacy leads to difficulty understanding percentages and the size of numbers. For example, “43% of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty” may be interpreted to mean 43 adults total rather than 43 adults for every 100. Misunderstanding statistics and shying away from data-backed information can lead to the spread of false information, which is especially dangerous during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Scientific literacy is “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making and participation in civic society,” including understanding the scientific method and how scientists build a body of knowledge (National Research Council, 1996). Low scientific literacy means difficulty understanding scientific concepts, like what clinical trials are or how to take medications. Numerous false claims have arisen regarding the origin of the COVID-19 virus and how it can be treated. Inability to recognize these falsehoods and comprehend accurate information can have deadly consequences.
  • Digital literacy is “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information” (American Library Association).  Low digital literacy means difficulty applying for a job or for resources like unemployment insurance online. It also means difficulty sifting through and evaluating the staggering amount of information on social media. This causes myriad problems, including people trying to cure themselves using unproven or even harmful so-called remedies.
  • Civic literacy Civic literacy “is the knowledge and skills to participate effectively in civic life through staying informed, understanding governmental processes, and exercising the rights and obligations of citizenship at local, state, national, and global levels” (Inquiry in Education, Vol. 8, Iss. 1, Art. 3). Low civic literacy means difficulty understanding things like voting, rights, and policy and low participation in civic duties. It is impossible to advocate for changes in civic systems when one is unaware of who is in their local office and unclear about how to exercise their right to protest and vote. Covid-19 has compounded low civic literacy because of rapid changes to policy and voting. Low civic literacy threatens people’s ability to access critical resources and participate in a society.

Woven through all of these literacies are critical thinking skills: the ability to comprehend and analyze information, evaluate its validity, and combine information from different sources. All of these literacies overlap. Low skill in one area might mean a person also has low skill in others.

The current crisis sharply illuminates the inequity and structural racism present in our society, with black and poor communities experiencing the worst health and economic effects. There are many reasons why: lack of high quality, universal health care; low wages paid to most “essential” workers; and the lack of internet access in working-class communities. Literacy skills play a central role in these challenges, leaving vulnerable groups much worse off.

If every crisis contains the seeds of an opportunity, then the current pandemic gives us the chance to change our educational systems fundamentally; systems that have failed to provide us with the literacies we need. Helping people substantially improve their literacy in all areas will require a major infusion of investment in education, at every level – from early childhood through K-12, to community college, to adult education.

This requires a fundamental shift in how we think about education and how we measure achievement. For at least the last two decades, the focus of every level of schooling has been on standardized tests (from No Child Left Behind, to Race to the Top, to the Common Core and the current Every Student Succeeds Act as well as high school equivalency exams). Despite the lip service paid to critical thinking skills, this focus on standardized testing has created a limited concept of education as just the mechanical learning of isolated facts that can be assessed on multiple choice tests. 

(This is not the fault of teachers, many of whom struggle to provide a well-rounded education for students but are often left out of educational decision-making.)

Instead, we need an approach that provides a rich and deep education where students at all levels explore, discover and build knowledge through hands-on, interactive activities that allow them to articulate their thinking, both verbally and in writing. This already exists in many private schools, and in some public schools in affluent districts, but isn’t the norm for schools in working-class communities or adult education. 

All of us who work in and care deeply about literacy must advocate and fight for an education that provides everyone with the tools to live healthy and productive lives.  In my four decades of work in literacy, there has never been a more urgent moment to wage this fight, and no way to build a more just and equitable society without it.

Anita Caref spent 40 years working in adult education and family literacy as a teacher, staff developer, manager, and curriculum writer.  She has worked in programs in New York City, Detroit and Chicago.  She has an M.A. in English/Language and Literacy from The City College of the City University of New York.