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Combat adult illiteracy

Man sitting on bookcase and reading.
Man sitting on bookcase and reading.

Literacy Partners, the only nationally accredited adult education program in New York City, informs us that according to research there are over 2 million adults in New York City who are functionally illiterate. The statistic is staggering. Helping adults throughout the city, and indeed the country, to achieve their literacy goals is as important as ever.

To be clear, “literacy” is more than reading and writing. The Workforce Investment Act of 1988 (Pub. L. 105-220, 112 Stat. 936) defines literacy as “an individual’s ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in his or her family, and in society.” (Read the full text at

Surprisingly, functionally illiterate adults may be as successful as literate adults are. They have jobs or careers, drive cars, dine in expensive restaurants, vacation, and own homes. However, because of low literacy, these adults may struggle everyday to adapt to an ever-changing, complex society. Consider how ingenious they must be to manage their lives. Consider, too, how strained they must feel to keep up appearances.

Recently, there has been chatter and ridicule in virtual space about boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr.’s suspected low-literacy skills. Mayweather is not the first public figure over which the low-literate or functionally illiterate dark cloud hovers. Should he and others like him who have “questionable pasts” be publicly ridiculed for having low literacy skills?

Instead of debating whether he measures up to being the “right kind of person to represent our adult basic education (ABE) cause,” as one literacy advocate put it, it might be more prudent to debate why low literacy and illiteracy persist in a rich, thriving society. Celebrities, famous or infamous, intentionally or not, often bring important issues to the forefront. Yet, the focus should be on the issues, whatever they are: climate crisis, animal rights and protection, child and elder abuse, affordable housing, unemployment, and education and literacy.

By focusing on the message (combating illiteracy), rather than on the messenger, ABE and literacy programs and educators are better able to create learning environments that encourage and help adult learners reach their literacy goals. This effort involves, among other things, developing level-appropriate curricula and lesson plans that address learning objectives, concepts and ideas, and creating engaging classroom learning activities that adults respond to readily.

The fact is adults are just as likely as children are to ridicule others because of actual or perceived weaknesses and differences. Teaching and practicing respect for others, being empathetic, and engaging in meaningful discussions are important components to incorporate into the adult literacy classroom.

The New York City Office of Adult and Continuing Education (OACE) website ( offers information and location of a variety of free ABE and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) programs throughout its five boroughs.

For more information about Literacy Partners’ programs and efforts, visit the website at, and the National Assessment for Adult Literacy (NAAL) and adult literacy data, information, and statistics, visit the National Center for Education Statistics website at

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