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Word To The Wise

Think illiteracy is a problem of the past? There's a reason some workers avoid the written word. Here's how you can help.

Although the majority of Americans are literate, that doesn't mean illiteracy isn't a workplace obstacle. Productivity is sagging, errors are skyrocketing, and many problems can be attributed directly to employee inadequacies with the written word. Eunice Askov, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, unravels this paradox: "Very few people are illiterate if that means they can't read or write at all. But millions face serious challenges keeping up with the demand to read and write on the job."

How many millions? More than 40 million Americans 16 years of age and older have only rudimentary reading and writing skills, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That's how many qualify at Level 1 in a five-level scoring of literacy. Level 1 means an individual can sign his or her name but can't make sense of a benefits write-up, reliably read a map, or accurately fill out a Social Security card application.

Those shortcomings can lead to big trouble on the job. A statistic from the Washington, DC-based National Institute for Literacy puts the finding in focus: More than 60 percent of front-line workers in goods-producing businesses have difficulty applying information from a text to a required task.

"About 20 percent of adults lack the skills to be fully productive," confirms Virginia Watson, director of the Michigan Adult Learning and Technology Center in Mt. Pleasant. Watson explains that while not being able to read or write at all used to be the definition of illiteracy, today, "functional illiteracy" means a person lacks the skills needed to perform his or her job.

How can this be in a nation that has long enforced compulsory education? "At least some of this problem rests with the educational system," contends Watson. Another factor is the steady influx of immigrants from third-world nations, some of whom have had little, if any, formal education.

But the most likely cause is that jobs have changed, explains Askov. "People who could have adequately handled their jobs," she says, "are now having trouble coping with new demands."

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail

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This article was originally published in the June 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Word To The Wise.

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