American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Communication Facts: Special Populations: Literacy – 2008 Edition

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 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 the family of the individual and in society." This is a broader view of literacy than just an individual's ability to read, the more traditional concept of literacy. As information and technology have increasingly shaped society, the skills needed to function successfully have gone beyond reading, and literacy has come to include the skills listed in the current definition (1).


The connection between spoken and written language are well established in that (a) spoken language provides the foundation for the development of reading and writing; (b) spoken and written language have a reciprocal relationship, such that each builds on the other to result in general language and literacy competence; and (c) instruction in spoken language can result in growth in written language, and instruction in written language can result in growth in spoken language (2).

  • Dyslexia: a language-based learning disability which is neurological in origin. Dyslexia refers to a cluster of symptoms which result in individuals having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading (3, 4).
  • Dysgraphia: a neurological-based writing disability in which a person finds it hard to form letters or write within a defined space (5).
  • Learning Disability: a general term that describes specific kinds of learning problems. A learning disability can cause a person to have trouble learning and using certain skills. The skills most often affected are: reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning, and doing math (6).
  • Reading: the process by which a person constructs meaning from printed symbols. Reading primarily involves two general components—decoding (word recognition) and comprehension (understanding/interpreting language) (2).
  • Specific Language Impairment: a significant deficit in linguistic functioning that does not appear to be accompanied by deficits in hearing, intelligence, or motor function (7).
  • Writing Process: cognitive-linguistic and motor acts that are involved when generating written texts. They include planning, organizing, drafting, reflecting, revising, and editing (7).
  • Writing Products: pieces of writing that are the result of the writing process. A product can be examined at several levels, including grammar and discourse structure (2).

General Demographics

  • Illiteracy is a critical economical and healthcare problem in the US (8).
  • Estimates of the prevalence of dyslexia in the general U.S. population range from 5% to 20% (9).
  • Most individuals with low literacy skills are of average intelligence and function reasonably well by compensating for their lack of reading skills (10).
  • Prevalence of learning disorders in the general population range from 3% to 13% (1).
  • There is a lack of information in the allied health and/or medical literature concerning the emotional experiences related to living with diagnosed dyslexia over the course of life (11).
  • Problems with literacy affect many aspects of daily living. One such area is access to proper health care. Communication difficulties faced by patients may, in part, be due to differences in vocabulary, but they are also due to differences in the structure and complexity of speech used by literate and low-literate populations (10).

Literacy and Adults

  • Between 21% and 23% of the adult population (approximately 44 million individuals) can read a little, but not well enough to fill out an application or read a food label (1).
  • Approximately 45–50 million adults (between 25% and 28% of adults) can perform complex tasks such as comparing, contrasting, and integrating pieces of information, but they are usually unable to perform higher level reading and problem-solving skills (1).

Literacy and Children

  • The literature on the prevalence and stability of preschool problems inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity suggests a number of links to early literacy skills and broader school achievement (12).
  • Almost 3 million school children (ages 6 through 21) have some form of a learning disability and receive special education in school (13).
  • The largest number of children ages 3–17, identified as having a learning disability, live in the southern region of the U.S. This prevalence decreases in the northeastern, midwestern, and western regions, respectively (14).
  • The percent of children with a learning disability in the lowest income group is more than double that of the highest income group (14).
  • Children with developmental speech/language impairments are at a higher risk for reading disability than typical peers with no history of speech/language impairment (15).


  1. National Institute for Literacy. (N.D.). Frequently asked questions. Accessed January 17, 2008,
  2. ASHA. (2001). Roles and responsibilities of speech-language pathologists with respect to reading and writing in children and adolescents (position statement, executive summary of guidelines, technical report). ASHA Supplement 21, 17–28. Rockville, MD: Author.
  3. Demonet, J. F., Taylor, M. J., & Chaix, J. (2004, May 1). Developmental dyslexia. Lancet, 363 (9419): 1451–1460.
  4. Schumacher, J., et. al. (2006, January). Strong genetic evidence of DCDC2 as a susceptibility gene for dyslexia. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 78(1): 52–62.
  5. Beeson, P. M. (2004, Winter). Remediation of written language. Topics in Stroke Rehabilitation, 11(1): 37–48.
  6. Elkins, J. (2007, September–October). Learning disabilities: bringing fields and nations together. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(5): 392–399.
  7. Shames, G. H., Wiig, E. H., & Secord, W. A. (1998). Human communication disorders: An introduction (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  8. Pawlak, R. (2005, July–August). Economic considerations of health literacy. Nursing Economics, 23(4): 173–180.
  9. Roongpraiwan, R., Ruangdaraganon, N., Visudhiphan, P., et. al. (2002, November). Prevalence and clinical characteristics of dyslexia in primary school students. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, 85 (Suppl. 4): S1097–S1103.
  10. Roter, D. L., Rudd, R. E., & Comings, J. (1998, December). Patient literacy: A barrier to quality care. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 13, 850–851.
  11. McNulty, M. A. (2003, July/August). Dyslexia and the life course. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36(4): 363–381.
  12. Spira, E. G., & Fischel, J. E. (2005, July). The impact of preschool inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity on social and academic development: a review. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 46(7): 755–773.
  13. U.S. Department of Education. (2005). To assure the free appropriate public education of all Americans: Twenty-seventh annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Accessed January 17, 2008,
  14. Blackwell, D. L. & Tonthat, L. (2003). Summary health statistics for U.S. children: National health interview survey, 1999. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Statistics 10(210).
  15. Schuele, C. M. (2004). The impact of developmental speech and language impairments on the acquisition of literacy skills. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 10(3): 176–183.

Compiled by Andrea Castrogiovanni * American Speech-Language-Hearing Association * 2200 Research Boulevard, Rockville, MD 20850 *

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