Functional illiteracy
Functional illiteracy is a term used to describe reading and writing
Writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols . It is distinguished from illustration, such as cave drawing and painting, and non-symbolic preservation of language via non-textual media, such as magnetic tape audio.Writing most likely...

 skills that are inadequate "to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level." Functional illiteracy is contrasted with illiteracy in the strict sense, meaning the inability to read or write simple sentences in any language.


Functional illiteracy is imprecisely defined, with different criteria from nation to nation, and study to study. However, a useful distinction can be made between pure illiteracy and functional illiteracy. Purely illiterate persons cannot read or write in any capacity, for all practical purposes. In contrast, functionally illiterate persons can read and possibly write simple sentences with a limited vocabulary, but cannot read or write well enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life in their own society.

For example, an illiterate person may not understand the written words cat or dog, may not recognize the letters of the alphabet, and may be unable to write their own name. In contrast, a functionally illiterate person may well understand these words and more, but cannot read well enough to understand the things they must read in order to get by in their daily life. A functionally illiterate person might be incapable of reading and comprehending job advertisements, past-due notices, newspaper articles, banking paperwork, complex signs and posters, and so on.

While pure illiteracy has approximately the same characteristics worldwide, the characteristics of functional illiteracy vary from one culture to another, as some cultures require better reading and writing skills than others. A reading level that might be sufficient to make a farmer functionally literate in a rural area of a developing country might qualify as functional illiteracy in an urban area of a technologically advanced country. Additionally, this kind of functional illiteracy is limited to languages with logographic or highly irregular writing systems. In languages with regular spelling, functional illiteracy is usually defined simply as reading too slow for practical use, inability to effectively use dictionaries and written manuals, etc.

Links with poverty and crime

In developed countries, the level of functional literacy of an individual is proportional to his/her income level and risk of committing crime. For example, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics in the United States::
  • Over 60% of adults in the US Prison System read at or below the fourth grade level
  • 85% of US juvenile inmates are functionally illiterate
  • Adult inmates who received educational services while in prison had a 16% chance of returning to prison, as opposed to 70% for those who received no instruction.
  • 43% of adults at the lowest level of literacy lived below the poverty line, as opposed to 4% of those with the highest levels of literacy.

According to :
  • Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
  • Three out of four individuals who receive food stamps read on the two lowest levels of literacy.
  • 16-to-19-year-old girls at the poverty line and below with below-average reading skills are 6 times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their more literate counterparts.


In the United States, according to Business magazine, an estimated 15 million functionally illiterate adults held jobs at the beginning of the 21st century. The American Council of Life Insurers reported that 75% of the Fortune 500
Fortune 500
The Fortune 500 is an annual list compiled and published by Fortune magazine that ranks the top 500 U.S. closely held and public corporations as ranked by their gross revenue after adjustments made by Fortune to exclude the impact of excise taxes companies collect. The list includes publicly and...

 companies provide some level of remedial training for their workers. All over the U.S.A. 30 million (14% of adults) are unable to perform simple and everyday literacy activities.

The National Center for Education Statistics provides more detail. Literacy is broken down into three parameters: prose, document, and quantitative literacy. Each parameter has four levels: below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient. For prose literacy, for example, a below basic level of literacy means that a person can look at a short piece of text to get a small piece of uncomplicated information, while a person who is below basic in quantitative literacy would be able to do simple addition. In the US, 14% of the adult population is at the "below basic" level for prose literacy; 12% are at the "below basic" level for document literacy; and 22% are at that level for quantitative literacy. Only 13% of the population is proficient in these three areas—able to compare viewpoints in two editorials; interpret a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity; or compute and compare the cost per ounce of food items.

The UK government's Department for Education reported in 2006 that 47% of school children left school at age 16 without having achieved a basic level in functional mathematics, and 42% fail to achieve a basic level of functional English. Every year, 100,000 pupils leave school functionally illiterate in the UK.

The 2009 Human Development Report
Human Development Report
The Human Development Report is an annual milestone publication by the Human Development Report Office of the United Nations Development Programme .-History:...

 used the percentage of people lacking functional literacy skills as one of the variables to calculate the Human Poverty Index
Human Poverty Index
The Human Poverty Index is an indication of the standard of living in a country, developed by the United Nations . For highly developed countries, the UN considers that it can better reflect the extent of deprivation compared to the Human Development Index....

 in developed countries.
Country People lacking
functional literacy
(% aged 16–65)
 Italy 47.0
 Mexico 43.2
 Republic of Ireland 22.6
 United Kingdom 21.8
 United States 20.0
 Belgium 18.4 Flanders
Flanders is the community of the Flemings but also one of the institutions in Belgium, and a geographical region located in parts of present-day Belgium, France and the Netherlands. "Flanders" can also refer to the northern part of Belgium that contains Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp...

 New Zealand 18.4
 Australia 17.0
 Switzerland 15.9
 Canada 14.6
 Germany 14.4
 Netherlands 10.5
 Finland 10.4
 Denmark 9.6
 Norway 7.9
 Sweden 7.5

Research findings

A Literacy at Work study, published by the Northeast Institute in 2001, found that business losses attributed to basic skill deficiencies run into billions of dollars a year due to low productivity, errors, and accidents attributed to functional illiteracy.

Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

 research has demonstrated that countries with lower levels of functional illiteracy among their adult populations tend to be those with the highest levels of scientific literacy
Scientific literacy
Scientific literacy encompasses written, numerical, and digital literacy as they pertain to understanding science, its methodology, observations, and theories.-Definition:...

 among the lower stratum of young people nearing the end of their formal academic studies. This correspondence suggests that a contributing factor to a society's level of civic literacy is the capacity of schools to ensure students attain the functional literacy required to comprehend the basic texts and documents associated with competent citizenship.

See also

  • Aliteracy
  • Functional English
    Functional English
    Functional English is usage of the English language required to perform a specific function. This is typically taught as a foundation subject as a good command of English is often required for academic study and career progression. In some cases, a particular form of technical English may be...

  • Health literacy
    Health literacy
    Health literacy is an individual's ability to read, understand and use healthcare information to make decisions and follow instructions for treatment...

  • Literacy
    Literacy has traditionally been described as the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently and think critically about printed material.Literacy represents the lifelong, intellectual process of gaining meaning from print...

  • Postliterate society
    Postliterate society
    A postliterate society is a hypothetical society in which multimedia technology has advanced to the point where literacy, the ability to read or write, is no longer necessary or common. The term appears as early as 1962 in Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy...

  • Scientific literacy
    Scientific literacy
    Scientific literacy encompasses written, numerical, and digital literacy as they pertain to understanding science, its methodology, observations, and theories.-Definition:...

External links

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