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What is Functional Illiteracy?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Functional illiteracy is the inability to read or write well enough to accomplish everyday tasks in modern society. It is different from pure illiteracy, which is the inability to read or write at all. Functional illiterates may have basic reading and writing ability but cannot carry out more advanced tasks such as operating a computer, filling out a job application or completing a tax form. A 2007 study estimated that 860 million people worldwide are functionally illiterate.

The level of illiteracy required for functional illiteracy varies from culture to culture. A person living in a rural, agrarian community in the developing world may be able to accomplish most daily tasks without advanced reading skills. Someone who lives in an urban environment with a strong reliance on technology must have a much higher literacy level to complete even simple tasks.

Functional illiteracy is not limited to those on the fringes of society. Major U.S. corporations such as Ford and Motorola have sponsored remedial reading programs to bring their employees up to a functional level of literacy. A 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Education estimated that 14 percent of adult Americans are functionally illiterate. A similar study in France showed a 9 percent rate of functional illiteracy. More than half of those functionally illiterate Frenchmen were employed, the study found.

Statistics on functional illiteracy do not include those with learning or reading disabilities or those who are unable to read or write a second language, for example recent immigrants. These are separate issues that have their own programs and solutions. Functional illiteracy presents unique problems; sufferers use many techniques to hide their illiteracy and often feel shame or embarrassment that prevents them from seeking available solutions. Experts link it with aliteracy, the reluctance to read even among literate people. Many functionally illiterate people may feel there is no need to acquire literacy in cultures where information is widely available in audio-visual formats such as television.

Experts say functional illiteracy can be prevented through efforts that start in early childhood. Children whose parents encourage reading and are active readers themselves are more likely to embrace literacy. This process should begin even before schooling starts and continue through the child’s life. Adults who confront their own illiteracy should be encouraged to seek out educational and training programs designed for their age groups. Emotional support from friends and family members can remove the stigma of seeking such help.

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Discussion Comments

By LisaLou — On Oct 15, 2011

Sometimes it seems hard to believe that there are such high numbers of functional illiteracy. When someone is born, raised and lives in one country all of their life, it is hard to imagine how they can survive without being literate.

I know each situation is different, but I think it can be very helpful for successful companies to sponsor reading and literacy programs.

Being able to read and understand what one is reading can open up a whole new world for someone. Sometimes it may just take one person believing in them or spending extra time helping them.

It seems like the few people I know who have struggled with reading, also struggle in other areas of their life too. They don't feel nearly as confident in themselves as they would if they were more literate.

By andee — On Oct 14, 2011

I think many people would be surprised by how much functional illiteracy is in America. Many people are able to somehow function and get by for most of their lives this way.

There are many families where the children living in the household are learning how to read and write in school and are much more literate than their parents are.

I have seen this happen often in families where they are from another country. Sometimes the parents aren't all that interested in learning how to be literate in English and depend on the kids to help them out when they need to.

If I lived in a country for an extended period of time, I would want to be literate and be able to read and write fluently in the language of the country where I lived. It would make life so much easier to be literate than to struggle every day with the language.

By Sara007 — On Oct 14, 2011

I really think it is the responsibility of the parents to make sure that their kids are up to speed on reading and writing. I know that illiteracy statistics can be frightening, but I think that if we all do our part we can really help out.

My child struggled with reading and writing, so the whole family made literacy a big thing in the house. We read books together, practiced writing and I even brought in a babysitter who was secretly a tutor for her. While I know that not everyone has the resources to fix reading and writing problems so easily, I am glad I can take control of it in my own home.

How do you think we should best go about international literacy?

By Perdido — On Oct 13, 2011

I offered to help my friend fill out his tax form. I did not know that he was functionally illiterate. I thought he just couldn’t comprehend how tax forms worked. I quickly discovered that his reasons for needing help were totally different.

He would point to words and ask me what they were. These weren’t super complicated words, either. He had me do all the writing, because he admitted to being a terrible speller.

Prior to this, I had no idea how deep his troubles ran. I knew that he was a C student, but I didn’t know why until then.

By kylee07drg — On Oct 12, 2011

A learning disability kept my sister from excelling at reading and writing. She is highly creative and imaginative, but she didn’t have the tools to carry out her ideas.

My parents never believed in disabilities. They thought she just was too lazy to try. I knew this wasn’t true, and I saw her life heading in the wrong direction because of their disbelief.

She wasn’t going to attend college because of her disability, but I talked her into enrolling in a literacy assistance program over the summer. She benefited greatly from it, and I even coaxed her into attending a community college in the fall.

By lonelygod — On Oct 12, 2011

When I was in high school I worked as a tutor for those with functional illiteracy. There were actually a surprising number of students that struggled with the basics of reading and writing.

I really think that it has a lot to do with how teachers are teaching people to read and write. I found that a lot of students had never even been taught basic phonics!

There needs to be a serious overhaul of our education system when so many students can get through to high school functionally illiterate. I really applaud the work of those literacy organizations that are trying to solve this problem.

By orangey03 — On Oct 11, 2011

My boyfriend is ashamed of his functional illiteracy, but he admitted it to me. He needed help spelling and reading several things.

I had to help him fill out a job application. He had been working in construction, and for that, he didn’t need to be highly literate. However, business was slow, and he applied to work at a warehouse.

Without my help, it would have taken him twice as long to read and fill out the application. He can’t spell even basic words, and he likely would not have gotten the job.

By StarJo — On Oct 11, 2011

My best friend is functionally illiterate. I asked him about his childhood to try and find the source of his problem.

He said that his parents never read story books to him when he was young. I believe this could have hindered him greatly. My parents read to me all the time, and I turned out to be the fastest reader and best speller in my class.

His parents are not great spellers, though they can read a bit faster than he can. I think maybe they were uncomfortable with their reading ability, and that could be why they didn’t read to him.

By ddljohn — On Oct 10, 2011

I don't think that education or intelligence has much to do with functional literacy. I saw some statistics on this and it showed that most functionally illiterate individuals are High School graduates. So I think we can say that someone who is functionally illiterate is not less smart than anyone else.

Another really interesting statistic I saw said that many functionally illiterate individuals grew up in a one-parent home, generally without a father. I wonder what the exact connection is between family situation and functional illiteracy?

By discographer — On Oct 10, 2011

@burcin-- I think it's a condition that exists all along, but goes unnoticed because the circumstances don't require the person to read or write. For example, if you grow up working on a farm or work as a car mechanic's assistant, you don't really need to read or write to get by. I'm sure this is much more common in developing countries since child-labor is more common in those countries and parents don't always insist on educating their children.

What surprised me is that there are actually a considerable number of adults in Europe and US that's also going through this. The only explanation that comes to mind is what I had heard about hearing problems on a TV program. The doctor there said that certain hearing problems, like being tone deaf makes it difficult for people to read and write.

So if there is no other apparent disability and the circumstances were also favorable, this might be one of the causes of functional illiteracy.

By burcinc — On Oct 09, 2011

So what is the cause of functional illiteracy?

If the statistics don't include people with disabilities, do we know why those with functional illiteracy are suffering from this problem?

My friend's son has dyslexia which is the cause of his functional illiteracy. He has a lot of difficulty comprehending words, so reading and writing is very difficult for him. He is going to a private school that teaches children with such reading and writing disabilities.

If a disorder is not involved, what could possibly be the cause of functional illiteracy, and that too with adults? Is it something that exists all along, since childhood but goes unnoticed or it happens suddenly?

By amysamp — On Oct 09, 2011

My friend's mom volunteered her time at remedial reading program partially because it was a passion of hers (she was a teacher full time) and partially because she felt she needed to do something after learning about our country's literacy statistics.

She enjoyed it and felt the students she had were appreciative of the program and worked diligently at becoming better readers. The only thing she had to find ways around was that she noticed many of her students were late arrivers so she instituted the "if you are not here 5 minutes after class starts then I leave rule" and that seemed to fix the tardiness.

I think the thing that amazes me is that we have such high low-literacy levels without even including students with disabilities like dyslexia in a country where schools are easy to access. What are the literacy rates like in other places where a K-8 education is not as easy to come by?

By Sinbad — On Oct 08, 2011

I learned a lot about this when I was in my graduate school program. In fact the school at that time was a promoting a literacy project that worked with students who were being taught at juvenile delinquent programs. I signed up for the grant and what we offered was an hour a week of language and reading therapy.

The difficulty was, for me that it was only for a semester and in working with population you had to earn the student's trust and this was difficult to do in just a semester.

So if someone is trying to work with this increasing literacy in this population then my suggestion would be to make it as long term as possible without having the instructors to be changed constantly.

I feel as though many of these kids had enough instability in their life and having people to stay for a while in their lives was just what they needed.

In the end though, even with the rotating instructors every semester, I felt we were able to help and at the end of the year the students were taken to a horse camp where they did literacy drills in the midst of fun things such as riding horses, grooming horses, and in the down time as they waited.

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