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.