During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people have a heightened need for information, literacy barriers can be life threatening. In the United States, roughly 20 percent of adults read at the lowest level, with another 33 percent still below proficiency1. Thus, many may be struggling to understand written guidance on COVID-19.
IES researchers at the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (R305C120001 and R305H180061) and their associated Adult Literacy Research Center at Georgia State University are working to address the needs of adults with literacy skill gaps. Dr. Meredith Larson spoke to Dr. Daphne Greenberg and Dr. Iris Feinberg about their work in this area.
What are your concerns for adults with low literacy during the pandemic?
We have known for a long time that the high prevalence of adults with low basic skills has consequences for both the individual and society. These consequences are heightened during this pandemic. Many adults with low literacy have “essential” jobs and must continue to work. They often interact with many different people daily. So it is crucial that they understand COVID-19 precautions for their own health and because their ability to know and practice safe behaviors has a direct impact on disease transmission to others. To be quite frank, we are concerned about the health and safety of our learners and the health and safety of others.
In the United States, we receive an overwhelming amount information about COVID-19 daily. To make matters worse, there’s no uniform national guidance, some of the information is incorrect, and other information is conflicting. It is challenging for highly literate individuals to make sense of it all. For example: When can a COVID-positive person step out of quarantine? Can someone be re-infected? How many feet constitute safe distance? The list of questions goes on and on.
For someone with low literacy, it’s even more difficult to make sense of all the COVID-19 information. For example, people with low reading skills may not be able to read or understand all of the written information. Additionally, because much of the information is on the internet, adults with low digital skills and/or poor access to the internet have the added problem of not being able to find information that could possibly be helpful to them.
How are you trying to address their needs?
We’ve created a library with a large sample of materials written for 9th grade reading levels and below available on the ALRC website. These documents provide specific information on topics like how to stop the spread or what to do if someone in your home has COVID-19. We hope that providers who work with adults with low literacy skills—like adult educators, community organizers and healthcare providers—will use our library and find the high-interest/low-literacy materials. The library is also divided into “easier” and “harder” resources, so people can quickly find material at appropriate reading levels.
What could healthcare providers, the media, or others do to help?
We all must help those who may not know where to find information. Not everyone knows how or where to look for health information or whether the information they find is valid. Our analysis of PIAAC data found that people with low literacy rely more on TV and radio for information. Simple, short public service announcements that are action oriented would be great for anyone who relies on TV or radio but particularly for those who have low reading skills.
Also, we need to be better prepared for all kinds of emergencies by creating community-wide partnership plans among trusted sources for adults with low literacy like community organizations, healthcare providers, and adult education providers. In addition, we should be following plain language guidelines in all of our written and oral communications. Writing health information in plain language helps everyone and should not be an afterthought.
Written by Meredith Larson. This is the first in a series of blog posts that explores how researchers respond to various education-related issues and challenges.
1 About the PIAAC
The PIAAC is an international assessment for adults that assesses cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) and contains data on educational background, workplace experiences and skills, and other items. For the purposes of this blog, the category of lowest levels is defined as Below Level 1 and Level 1 and below proficiency is Level 2. For more information about estimates of U.S. adult skills as measured by the PIAAC: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp