More than one in 10 San Mateo County residents struggle to comprehend simple English, according to a new literacy study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The study, released Thursday, estimates that 15 percent of those 16 and older in the county lacked basic prose literacy skills in 2003 — an increase from 8 percent in 1992.

"Adults with low literacy skills — it's a huge concern considering the impact on themselves, their families and the community at large," said Sarah Lapin, a specialist for the literacy program San Mateo County READS. "If a parent is unable to read to a child, it perpetuates generational low literacy levels and low educational attainment."

The county fared better than its neighbors and the state.

According to the study, 16 percent of Santa Clara County residents and 19 percent of Alameda County residents lacked basic prose literacy skills.

California suffered the worst rate among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with 23 percent of residents lacking basic prose literacy skills.

In general, states with large immigrant populations had the most residents who were unable to read and understand information from such sources as newspapers and brochures or could grasp only short, commonplace language, the study indicates.

"It's sadly surprising" that California fell from 33rd in 1992 to 51st in 2003 in the literacy rates, said Debra Jones, director of adult learning for the state Department of Education. But "there's a strong correlation to the immigration pattern."

A large part of that pattern represents English-language learners, a group that has shown growth in San Mateo County and across the state over recent years.

The number of English learners in the county's public schools — mostly Spanish speakers — grew about 10 percent from 19,275 in 2006 to 21,124 last year, according to the Department of Education.

Such growth and ongoing budget shortfalls reinforce the challenge of combating illiteracy, educators say.

"We always need more volunteer tutors," Lapin said. "We need more support from the community and people to write to their legislators telling them the importance of these programs (in the face) of budget cuts."

Jones plans to present the NCES study to lawmakers in pressing for additional funding for adult-literacy efforts, she said. "Programs are stretched to the max."

Meanwhile, her agency has launched the Adult Basic Education Initiative. Jones said it will provide professional development, technical assistance and other resources to programs focused on serving residents with less than a high-school education.

The NCES report gives a breakdown of literacy figures for states and counties for the first time. It used data from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, a nationwide representative sample of more than 19,000 Americans age 16 and older, and the 2000 Census, which provided contributing factors such as education and income.

Other states with high illiteracy rates in 2003 included New York (22 percent) and Texas (19 percent), according to the study. Minnesota, North Dakota and New Hampshire tied for the lowest rate, 6 percent.

The national rate was 14.5 percent in 2003, said NCES statistician Sheida White. That equates to 32 million residents nationwide lacking basic literacy skills.

To see state and county estimates, visit the Web site nces.ed.gov/naal/estimates/StateEstimates.aspx.

To volunteer as a tutor for San Mateo County READS, call 650-572-7323.

Staff writer Neil Gonzales covers education. He can be reached at 650-348-4338 or ngonzales@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Percentage of those 16 and older lacking
basic literacy skills in 2003
  • 15 percent -- San Mateo County
  • 16 percent -- Santa Clara County
  • 18 percent -- San Francisco County
  • 19 percent -- Alameda County
  • 23 percent -- California
  • 14.5 percent -- United States
    Source: National Center for Education Statistics