Functional illiteracy

Functional illiteracy refers to the inability of an individual to use reading, writing, and computational skills efficiently in everyday life situations. Illiteracy is the inability to read or write simple sentences in any language.


When illiterate, one cannot read or write at all. In contrast, one who is functionally illiterate has a basic grasp of literacy (reading and writing text in his or her native language), but with a variable degree of grammatical correctness and style. In short, when confronted with printed materials, functionally illiterate adults cannot function effectively in modern society and cannot adequately perform fundamental tasks such as filling out an employment application, understanding a legally binding contract, following written instructions, reading a newspaper article, reading traffic signs, consulting a dictionary, or understanding a bus schedule.

Functional illiteracy also severely limits interaction with information and communication technologies (e.g. using a personal computer to work with a word processor, a web browser, a spreadsheet application, or a mobile phone efficiently).

Links with poverty and crime

Those who are functionally illiterate may be subject to social intimidation, health risks, stress, low income, and other pitfalls associated with their inability.

The correlation between crime and functional illiteracy is well known to criminologists and sociologists throughout the world. In the early 2000s, it was estimated that 60% of adults in federal and state prisons in the United States were functionally or marginally illiterate, and 85% of juvenile offenders had problems associated with reading, writing, and basic mathematics.


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 companies provide some level of remedial training for their workers. All over U.S.A. 30 million (14% of adults) are functionally illiterate.

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, 43% of the adult population is at the below or basic level for prose literacy; 34% are at the below or basic level for document literacy; and 55% are at those levels 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.

In the UK, according to the Daily Telegraph (14 June 2006) "one in six British adults lacks the literacy skills of an 11-year-old". The UK government's Department for Education reported in 2006 that 47 percent of school children left school at age 16 without having achieved a basic level in functional maths, and 42 percent fail to achieve a basic level of functional English. Every year 100,000 pupils leave school functionally illiterate in the UK.

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.

Sociological 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 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


  • - European psychoanalytic group for research on the causes of illiteracy

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