What Literacy Means Today


Adult literacy has been at the heart of World Education’s work since it was established in 1951 in India and founded the Literacy House upon the urging of Mohandas Gandhi. Sixty-four years later, while gains have been made in many parts of the world, the need for literacy education remains great:  there are nearly 800 million adults and out-of-school youth in the world with limited or no literacy and numeracy.  In the U.S., adults’ basic skills are falling behind those of other developed nations.  For the first time, the skills of young adults are lower than those of their parents’ generation.  At the same time, people need even more different types of literacies to move ahead in their lives than in 1951. World Education’s approach to literacy education and how we define it has evolved and expanded commensurate with the skills adults need to navigate systems, pursue opportunities, and address problems successfully in their personal lives, work, and communities.

To commemorate the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, in this series of blog posts World Education/ U.S. staff share their views on what literacy means to us today and how we are helping to advance adult education in multiple ways.  Our list is not comprehensive: there are not enough days in a week to feature all the types of literacy youth and adults need in today’s world!  Please join the dialogue.


“Adult and Family Literacy Week” would be better named “Adult and Family Literacy and Numeracy Week!”  Why?  Because the ability to use mathematics in everyday life is essential to fully participating in modern life “at work, in practical everyday activities at home and beyond, as consumers, in managing our finances, as parents helping our children learn, as patients making sense of health information, as citizens understanding the world around us.”[1]   Decisions we make every day depend on numeracy skills.  “To make the best choices, we need to be numerate.”[2]

In the U.S., nearly one out of three adults has low numeracy skills compared to an international average of one in five.  Results from PIAAC, the international survey of adult skills, confirm that having strong numeracy skills is critical for success in the U.S. workplace:  adults with better numeracy skills tend to earn higher wages.[3]

How is World Education helping to develop adults’ numeracy skills?  We provide training throughout the country to strengthen the capacity of instructors who teach mathematics to adult learners.  Our mathematics and numeracy professional development series includes the nationally recognized Adult Numeracy Instruction, an intensive, evidence-based program in effective numeracy instruction for adults.  Our e-learning courses, designed by national experts and offered through our Educational Technology Center, range from Number Sense: Teaching About Parts and Wholes to Algebra:  Introducing Algebraic Reasoning.

For resources on adult numeracy, go to the Adult Numeracy Network, the national adult numeracy professional organization.

Published by

Sally Waldron

Sally Waldron

Sally Waldron (M.Ed.) is a Vice President at World Education, Inc. Her expertise includes educational leadership, program development, evaluation, professional development, technical assistance, strategic planning, and adult numeracy. Sally was the director of the Massachusetts professional development system, and she provided leadership of the U.S. Division’s professional development efforts until 2012. Prior to joining World Education, Sally served as the director of an urban adult basic education program serving 1,200 adults annually and taught reading, writing, and numeracy for more than 15 years.