Knowing your ABCs isn’t all.

According to the International Literacy Association, 12% of the world’s population is functionally illiterate. On this serious note, let me elaborate:

While ‘literacy’ in itself is a concept fundamental to achieving an educated, developed society, ‘functional literacy’ is perhaps even more so. The distinction between the two can be summarised by the simple question “You can read the words on the page, but can you process the ideas within them?”. Functional literacy therefore involves not only the simple ability to associate spoken language with its written form, but also a broader definition of skills such as reading comprehension, numerical literacy, ability to interpret graphs, analyse texts’ implications and outcomes, in short: it involves a level of literacy at which an individual can effectively function within society.

The aim of this post is to provide a by-all-means non-exhaustive overview of functional illiteracy’s:

  • concept-development;
  • general and personal implications;
  • associated issues and practical improvement initiatives.

The end notes include a list of further reading materials and data sources I used for this piece.

Happy reading (and understanding), because you can!

The evolution of the term ‘functional literacy’ began with the need for a better definition of reading proficiency, beyond that of attained educational level in years-of-schooling as units. United Nations first posed the question in 1978, and while many adjacent definitions of functional literacy have been postulated by different organisations and NGO’s, the key distinction between formal and functional (il)literacy comes down to ‘reading of written information’ versus ‘understanding, interpretation, expression’ of that same information, as well as numerical and communication skills. According to the UN, functional literacy involves a continuum of lifelong learning that empowers people to achieve their goals, to expand their knowledge and reach their individual, contextualised potential. Today, quality education is Sustainable Development Goal 4, and improving functional literacy plays an integral part in attaining the Goal’s targets.

“A functionally literate person can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective function of his or her group and community and also for enabling him or her to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his or her own and the community’s development.”

– ‘functional literacy’ as defined by UNESCO’s General Conference from 1978 onwards

As per this definition, the consequences and implications of functional illiteracy are both deeply personal and broadly societal. As with general illiteracy, those with insufficient reading comprehension and numeracy levels may experience an inability to achieve their full personal potential, resulting in subjective feelings of insecurity and an objective limitation in terms of life opportunities. The rise of technology has fuelled an emergence of complex jobs demanding a more and more complete FL skillset, meaning that the future promises a growing employment and inequality gap between the functionally literate and those below the required skill-levels. This leads to wider consequences for a country’s economy: a mismatch between the literacy skills demanded and those supplied concerns not only individuals or NGO’s, but also policy-makers who ensure that education provided within a country is up-to-date with, and indeed ideally ahead of, contemporary social and economic demands.

Moving on, the computational methods used to measure functional literacy range from specific reading-comprehension and numerical tests within the PIACC framework to more general and contextualised testing approaches. While this post has become quite the essay (and with good reason – functional literacy is an underrated, veritable social crisis!), I shall refrain from also making it a lab report – to continue the assignment analogy – and would instead love to endorse UNESCO’s excellent analysis of FL-measuring methods linked below.

Interconnected with functional literacy are its causes, which range from poverty and incarceration to early-school-leaving (the colloquial “drop-out”) rates. Focusing on the latter, given my self-proclaimed specialisation in all things education-related, it is key to note the relationship between young people leaving after completing only the bare, compulsory, minimum years of schooling and functional illiteracy. Limited reading-comprehension and numeracy skills are not just a result of early-school leaving; it is often indeed the main cause. Many educational institutions are structured around the assumption that children have attained a degree of functional literacy once the standard period for initial literacy learning, or mastering those proverbial ABC’s, has been completed. As this assumption is often outright wrong, students struggle with understanding and absoption of complex texts demanded of them in different subjects, resulting in mistakes and lack of accomplishment in results across the board. These fuel early-school-leaving further, forming a vicious circle of sorts that starts with insufficiencies in the education system itself.

The issue is further compounded by the hard-to-pin-down nature of the skillset involved in FL, since, unlike illiteracy, it is often contextual and defined by the literacy needs of a particular person. Functionally illiterate adults may hence develop strategies that allow them to bypass any need for deeper text comprehension and other FL skills. Moreover, once such adults potentially return to complete their secondary-education or any equivalency certifications, e.g. to increase employability, their literacy needs are seldom comparable to those of typical secondary-school age students. Therefore, adult education should examine the functional literacy needs and wants of those who left school early and not simply adhere to standardised FL requirements.

While adult education is one of the principal FL solutions, western societies commendably offering such programs to vulnerable and hard-to-reach social groups, like the previously large-scale Canadian AlphaRoute initiatives which utilised a multilingual online platform for interactive literacy and numeracy improvement, there is still much room for growth. The two major concerns are, firstly, a lack of research into specifically functional literacy skill-bolstering methods, stemming from a lack of consensus on FL definition and the functionally-illiterate’s true needs often going undetected (in stark contrast to complete illiteracy), and secondly, the aforementioned insufficiencies in the existing compulsory-education system. Reading comprehension and analysis skills do not equate simply being able to reproduce a text out loud as part of initial literacy learning and the functional aspect of literacy development is persistently neglected during children’s compulsory schooling years, this semi-hidden educational issue plaguing numerous countries, developed and developing alike.

In short, that “12% functionally illiterate” figure doesn’t lie and millions of people’s need for education goes above and beyond simple reading. On that note, I’m also thrilled to say that Room to Read – my fundraising NGO of choice – includes girls’ secondary education as one of their (or rather, our!) top priorities and advocates empowerment and fulfilment of potential for both communities and individuals – all hallmarks of FL development.

Thanks for bearing with this unusually long and seriousTM post concerning one of the key derivative issues of global illiteracy. Here’s to an educational cause worth solving!


Further reading and Sources:

  • UNESCO’s Reports: Functional Literacy and Numeracy: Definitions and Options for Measurement of SDG 4.6 for 2018 and 2017;
  • A brief update on UNESCO’s own blog;
  • More of a European-outlook in “A Review about Functional Illiteracy: Definition, Cognitive, Linguistic, and Numerical Aspects” by Vágvölgyi, R., Coldea, A., Dresler, T., Schrader, J., & Nuerk, H. C. (2016), published by Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1617;
  • …and many more publications regarding FL, its historical development etc. on academic databases such as JSTOR.