Sticht: Adult Oracy in America

The following was originally published by the Federal Observer Blog on May 13, 2010. ~ (Ed.)

There can be no doubt that functional illiteracy maims the ability of adults to achieve well in contemporary life. However, there are a number of emerging factors that suggest that not only is literacy a problem, millions of adults may also be functionally inorate. – Tom Sticht

1993 report Adult Literacy in America, based on the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) lead the U. S. Department of Education to claim that almost half of America’s adults were functionally illiterate. A decade later, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) reiterated that claim.

There can be no doubt that functional illiteracy maims the ability of adults to achieve well in contemporary life. However, there are a number of emerging factors that suggest that not only is literacy a problem, millions of adults may also be functionally inorate, that is, their abilities to speak, listen, and converse well in the oral language are so poorly developed as to pose problems in achievement, too. And here I am not talking about foreign-born, non-English speaking immigrants. I am talking about adults born in the United States who speak English as their native language.

All the major studies of the essential skills that adults need to work effectively, raise families, and engage in community activities point to the importance of oral communication skills: listening and speaking. In 1991 the Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) identified listening and speaking as foundation skills for success in America’s workforce. In the latter half of the decade of the 1990s, the National Institute for Literacy’s Equipped for the Future project identified listening and speaking as part of what adults need to know and be able to do for success in family, work, and community life roles.

Despite the widely held expectations for oracy (defined by Andrew Wilkinson in the 1960s as speaking and listening) skills in life in America, I have found no national assessments of adult’s oracy skills. However, there are a number of studies that confirm the need for a deeper understanding of adult oracy. The seminal work of Betty Hart and Todd Risley reported in their book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children (Brookes, 1995,) revealed huge differences in the amount of oracy in homes where parents were either professional, working class, or welfare groups. The professional homes produced millions of more words of speech for their children to listen to than did the homes of working class or welfare parents. This resulted in large differences in the oracy skills (vocabulary) of the children, and in turn this contributed to differences in reading achievement when the children went to school.

In 1996 and again in 2001 colleagues and I reported on surveys of adult’s vocabulary, political, and cultural knowledge assessed by telephone. In this case, the interviewer used speech to talk with the respondents and the latter listened. What we found was that there was a wide range of vocabulary and cultural knowledge amongst the adults, all of whom were English speakers, and there were significant relationships of oracy (listening) with educational achievement, occupational status, and income.

In studies of the reading components of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS, 2003), researchers used oracy tests for assessing vocabulary knowledge and memory for number sequences. They found that these orally presented tests were positively related to performance on the prose literacy tests of the IALS. Out of a possible 1.0 relationship, the oral vocabulary test correlated at plus .59 while the memory for numbers test correlated plus .69 with the IALS prose literacy tests. These correlations were higher than those for the reading skills of word recognition.

In military-related research, colleagues and I found that listening to spoken passages and answering questions about them later was as highly related to the performance of real job tasks, such as cooks making scrambled eggs, automobile repairman fixing a broken wheel bearing, etc as was a reading test. Later, we developed a special test to measure both listening and reading comprehension and found that there were high relationships between these two modes of communication. Poorly literate young adults were also likely to perform poorly when listening to passages and then answering questions about them. This is the sort of listening one does in school lecture classes.

While as mentioned, I have found no national assessments of adult oracy skills for native English speakers, the data mentioned above and numerous studies with children, from pre-school though K-12, indicate that oracy is a major contributor to the acquisition of good literacy skills. The need for good listening and speaking skills is ubiquitous in higher education.

Oracy is the primary mechanism for the intergenerational transfer of language and literacy from parents to their children. Oracy is used on the radio and television to inform and persude listeners into action. And oracy is always included amongst the skills employers say they need when hiring their workforce. For these reasons, we need to focus as much attention upon the development of oracy as we do upon literacy with both children and adults.

In the beginning was the word…and it was spoken! But was it understood?

Tom Sticht is an International Consultant in Adult Education. This column was originally published on

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