Functional illiteracy

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Functional illiteracy is generally defined as possession of reading and writing skills that are inadequate "to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level".[1] Functional illiteracy is contrasted with illiteracy in the strict sense, meaning the inability to read or write simple sentences in any language.

Foreigners who cannot read and write in the native language where they live may also be considered functionally illiterate.


Functional illiteracy is imprecisely defined, with different criteria from nation to nation, and study to study.[2] 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 might be incapable of reading and comprehending job advertisements, past-due notices, newspaper articles, banking paperwork, complex signs and posters, and so on.

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. 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.

There are several methods of determining functional illiteracy. By far the most accurate is the method in which those trying to determine if persons are functionally literate or not have a financial interest in being accurate, such as trying to hire workers who can read and write well enough to be able to earn more for their employer than the wages they earn. The most statistically accurate and comprehensive study of U.S. adults, described in detail in the Prevalence section later, included a study of the yearly earnings of the interviewees grouped into one of five levels of functional literacy by testing their response to written material they were given to read.

Links with poverty and crime[edit]

In developed countries, the level of functional literacy of an individual is proportional to income level and risk of being incarcerated for a crime. For example:

  • Over 60% of adults in the US prison system read at or below the fourth grade level[3] Up to 80% of adults in the US prison system are non-readers.[4]
  • Florida Judge Charles Phillips stated, "Eighty percent of the new criminals who pass my desk would not be here if they had graduated from high school and could read and write."[5]
  • From a recent census of prisoners more than twenty-five years of age, 75 percent are not high school graduates and 35–42 percent of them had not completed ninth grade, as compared to 38 percent of the total adult population who have not graduated high school.[6]
  • 85% of US juveniles appearing before the court are functionally illiterate.[7]
  • 31.2% of adults in the two lowest of five literacy levels lived below the poverty line, as opposed to 4.7% of those with the highest level of literacy. Those below the poverty line were more than twice as likely to be in poverty because of their illiteracy as for all other reasons combined.[8] and[9]
  • 44% of U.S. adults who were "Below Basic" in literacy tests, reported in February 2009, were in poverty as compared to 17% of the entire U.S. population in poverty (below the 2003 U.S. Census Bureau threshold poverty). The report listed 13% or thirty million U.S. adults as being in the below basic category, but did not show percentages or other facts about the basic, intermediate, or proficient categories, the other three literacy groupings.[10]

According to[11]

  • 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.

Remedial reading[edit]

The reason for the reference to the fourth grade level mentioned above is that in nearly all U.S. schools, the only reading taught after the fourth grade is remedial reading. Almost every native English-speaking person around the world can read at least a thousand simple words they learn in the first four grades in school; if that is all they can read, however, they are functionally illiterate.[12]

Most public schools in the U.S. have remedial reading classes, or remedial reading groups in classes, for almost every grade level. Remedial reading classes are also common in college. David Harman states,[13]

One indication of [functionally illiterate high school graduates] can be found among students in community colleges, all graduates of high schools. Over half of community college entrants, researcher John Roueche found, are lacking in adequate basic skills: "The most offered courses in American community colleges were remedial reading, remedial writing, and remedial arithmetic.... Community colleges do not have a monopoly on remedial reading courses for high school graduates: a number of Ivy League colleges also make such courses available to entering freshmen who are found to need them.

A September 1997 report states that "almost one-third of college freshmen require remedial instruction." [14] Are there remedial reading classes in other languages? Dr. Rudolph Flesch states,

Do you know that there are no remedial reading cases in Germany, in France, in Italy, in Norway, in Spain—practically anywhere in the world except in the United States? [15]

Part of the reason is that the school systems in many other nations do not try to make high school or college graduation a possibility for every student, the way the US does. It is also true that there is much less need for remedial reading classes in most other nations.

Students in no other nation on earth have the difficulty that English-speaking students have in learning to read. Although we like to take pride in our literacy level, the truth is that in the US—where by law every child must attend school throughout childhood (and almost all do) – there are more adults who cannot read than in some nations with far less than universal schooling.

Many of those needing remedial reading do not receive any remedial reading teaching because many teachers — either purposely or inadvertently — do not notice that a particular student needs remedial reading. John Corcoran, who wrote the book The Teacher Who Couldn't Read, published in 1994 by Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colorado, explained that all through twelve years of public school, no teacher ever seemed to notice that he never correctly read anything aloud in class. Corcoran explained that, by their inaction in attempting to solve the problem of teaching reading, parents, teachers, school administrators, and politicians are in denial that functional illiteracy is a serious problem in America. Even if a teacher notices that a student has not learned to read, since most teachers do not know how to ensure that every student can learn to read, students who cannot read are simply passed on to the next grade in hopes that they will learn to read later. Corcoran backs this up by giving the details of his entire school experiences from kindergarten through college graduate, and how he was able to teach high school in California for 17 years. He also gives the names and experiences of numerous others who also graduated from high school and several others who graduated from college and were functionally illiterate. Statistical studies, detailed in the "Prevalence" section below, prove that John Corcoran's experience is far from unusual.[16]

Reasons for functional illiteracy[edit]

There are many reasons why any one particular student may not learn to read fluently, as in the following list. Since more than one of these reasons may apply to any particular student and since there is so much variation from one group of students to another, it is not possible to say which is the most frequent of these causes.

  • The student or his or her parents or friends place little or no importance on learning to read.
  • The student is far more involved in numerous activities than in spending the time needed to learn to read, as explained below.
  • The student goes to school hungry, frightened (over gang violence, increased levels of school bullying, or classmates who bring weapons to school, for example), worried over schoolwork or problems at home (such as increased levels of divorce or insufficient family income for essentials), or embarrassed (about failing to read aloud properly in class or about his or her old, ragged clothing, for example).
  • The student has poor eyesight, poor hearing, or learning problems.
  • The student uses addictive drugs.
  • The student does not like the teacher or the teacher is ineffective.
  • The teaching materials or the teaching method is ineffective.

In today's world, besides all the school and societal problems which hinder learning, there are many fun-but-time-consuming activities interfering with learning which did not exist in simpler times—before the twentieth century. Some of these pleasurable activities include radio, television, movies in theaters and on DVDs and electronic devices, musical concerts or recordings, computer games, social networking on the internet, internet browsing and searching, newly developed sports, profitable full- and part-time jobs, and gang and other youth activities.

Like the items in Pandora's box, once these time-consuming or distracting activities are loosed upon society, they cannot be taken back. It thus becomes very difficult to get many of the students to spend the long hours learning to read that were spent in more simple times[citation needed]. This is especially true if—due to teaching methods inferior[weasel words] to the memorization and "dull drill" used in prior centuries—the student is having difficulty learning. (Although memorization and "dull drill" used in the 19th Century was effective[citation needed], it required devoted effort for both student and teacher.) If the student is having difficulty learning, it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to persuade the student to spend time on an unpleasant and difficult activity rather than a multitude of readily available pleasant activities.[17]

Although one or more of the reasons above apply to every student, there is only one cause of the difficulty of learning to read that affects every student. This difficulty will be explained in detail in the "Ending functional illiteracy" section below.

Problems functional illiterates face[edit]

This is a list of 34 different types of physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems that most functional illiterates must endure almost every day of their lives. There are other problems that functional illiterates have, of course, but this list is representative and undoubtedly covers types of problems that functional illiterates have that you have never considered. Some of these items may seem merely to be annoyances, but in total they would amount to a crisis if we, personally, had to endure them. Many of the simple everyday tasks we perform daily are beyond the abilities of functional illiterates and cause their lives to be difficult. These problems will take on added significance if some of our loved ones (or even just our acquaintances) have to endure them. Almost everyone has family, friends, or acquaintances who — unknown to us — are functionally illiterate.


  1. Jobs lost upon discovering illiteracy. Today, even the most menial jobs require the ability to read.[18]
  2. Low pay for low reading ability.
  3. Pay tied to reading ability, not social class. Those who have completed high school have incomes about double those who have not completed grade school, and half again higher than those with an eighth grade education. This situation prevails among all sectors of the population: men and women, white and black, and all age groups.[19]
  4. Unemployment versus reading ability. The lower the reading level the greater the likelihood of unemployment.
  5. Unemployment versus retraining. Of the eight million unemployed, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 75 percent lack the skills necessary to be retrained for high-tech jobs.[20]


  1. (6.)The Percentage of functionally illiterate juvenile delinquents. Among juveniles appearing before the court, 85 percent are functionally illiterate.[21]
  2. (7.)Percentage of non-reading first-time offenders. Eighty percent of the new criminals have not graduated from high school and cannot read and write."[22]
  3. (8.)Non-reading prison inmates. Up to 80 percent of prison inmates are non-readers.[23]
  4. (9.)Education level among prison inmates. From a recent census of prisoners more than twenty-five years of age, 75 percent are not high school graduates and 35–42 percent of them had not completed ninth grade, as compared to 38 percent of the total adult population not high school grads.[24]

Standard of living

  1. (10.)Income level versus education level. In 2000 the median annual earnings were, for men: bachelor degree or more, $48,000; some college, $33,000; high school graduate, $29,000; high school dropout, $20,500 and for women: bachelor degree or more, $34,500; some college, $25,000; high school graduate, $20,000; high-school dropout, $14,500.[25]
  2. (11.)Education level versus percentage of families on welfare. There are twice as many on welfare with less than a sixth-grade education than there are with six to eight years of schooling. There are almost four times as many on welfare with less than a sixth-grade education than have completed nine to eleven years of school.[26]

Consumer rights

  1. (12.)Victimization of non-readers by their landlords. An apartment to live in and fuel to keep it warm in winter are uncertain if the one signing the lease or receiving past due bill notices can't read.
  2. (13.)Lack of understanding of insurance coverage. Insurance policies cannot be used for insuring against losses if the policyholders do not remember (or more likely were not told) all the details of the insurance coverage and cannot read the policy for themselves.
  3. (14.)Lack of checking account equals loss of interest payments. Those who cannot read and write seldom keep their money in checking or savings accounts.[27]

Citizens' rights

  1. (15.)Democracy is denied to nonvoters and uninformed voters. Most illiterates either do not vote or cast uninformed votes. Their knowledge of candidates is usually limited to paid political radio and television announcements and to events newsworthy enough to deserve air time. Democracy, for them, is an unreachable ideal.
  2. (16.)Loss of citizens' rights through lack of knowledge of them. Illiterates must learn of their rights, deadlines they face, and things they must do from the radio or television or depend on people they often have reason to distrust to keep them informed. Their rights are just a hollow mockery if they don't know about them.


  1. (17.)Denial of the right to an education. It is understandable if school officials, after reviewing the records, decide that certain students are wasting a teacher's time and the school's budget for school materials. It is easier for all concerned to believe the student has failed than that the educational system didn't do what it should for the student.
  2. (18.)Children of the functionally illiterate lose educational rights. Illiterate parents do not read letters from their children's teachers or study materials designed to help their children prepare for college, nor can they help their children with homework.
  3. (19.)Embarrassment over the inability to read to children who request it. Illiterates must often suffer the embarrassment of having young children know their parent(s) can't read.[28]
  4. (20.)The cost of truancy. Truancy is now such a serious problem that ordinances have been enacted allowing police in many U.S. cities to impose a $500 fine or thirty days in jail for the parents and suspension of drivers licenses of the students. Most truancy occurs because the truants have failed to learn to read. Better education significantly reduces both truancy and other forms of juvenile delinquency.[29]

Basic lifestyle choices

  1. (21.)Restaurant roulette: stick to basics or eat detested food. Illiterates can't always order what they want when they go to a restaurant. If there are no pictures, they may not know what they have ordered until it arrives—and it may be something they do not like.
  2. (22.)Supermarket roulette: what is in this can? Illiterates have to buy products based on pictures on the package or buy labels they recognize from TV commercials, but how could they buy Campbell's soup and get what they want when every can looks the same? Most illiterates will not ask for help in the supermarket, and therefore waste money on household items they can't use or on foods they detest.
  3. (23.)Expense, time, and stress of traveling to pay bills. Illiterates cannot manage checking accounts, so they seldom pay bills by mail. This means they must spend several hours each month in time-consuming and often expensive travel, an added cost for every payment they make.
  4. (24.)The dangers of travel. Although illiterates may learn to decipher many traffic signs and symbols, street signs they have never seen before are a complete mystery to them. Bus stop and subway station names are equally meaningless. Imagine your frustration at being lost in a foreign country with a language you know nothing about. A similar frustration or fear usually keeps most illiterates close to home.
  5. (25.)Lack of choice of TV programs. Illiterates do not have the luxury of deciding in advance what TV shows they will watch. They stick with weekly programs they know come on at a certain time or find what they can by flipping through the channels, frequently missing programs that would be of much more interest to them.
  6. (26.)Inability to follow food preparation instructions. There is a danger, for illiterates, in purchasing some new food item or in trying a new recipe by following a friend's oral instructions. They run a high risk of wasting food for which replacement would be difficult or impossible because of limited finances. Even government food handouts are a mockery if the recipients cannot read instructions.
  7. (27.)The dilemma of having to trust someone who is untrustworthy. Illiterates do not have even the most basic lifestyle choices that the rest of us have. They must rely upon others to choose for them. Illiterates can cite many times when wrong choices were made for them or times when they were cheated. They find themselves in the dilemma of having to trust people that they are not sure can be trusted. They are often terrified by not knowing the right word for the right thing at the right time.

Dangers and health risks

  1. (28.)Medicine bottle precautions. Illiterates can't read precautions on a medicine bottle. The expiration date for safe usage, possible allergic reactions, sedative effects, who should not take it, possible side-effects, and dosages, thus may be a mystery to them.
  2. (29.)Inability to read health pamphlets. Illiterates can't read health pamphlets and bulletins, and thus often do not know about the preventive health measures they describe. They often do not know, for example, the seven warning signs of cancer.
  3. (30.)Inability to read product warnings. Illiterates can't read, for example, the warning sign on a pack of cigarettes. They may know that smoking is bad for them, but they can't read the details that could give them the determination to quit.
  4. (31.)Unintended surgery through lack of understanding. Illiterates can't read waivers that they must sign before undergoing surgery, so they don't know their rights. They often do not understand the medical jargon and fear the unfamiliar atmosphere found in hospitals. They sometimes find, too late, that they've agreed to something that in the confusion was not adequately explained to them.
  5. (32.)Workplace injuries. Working with toxic chemicals can be a frightening job for someone who can't read package labels or the warning signs on the walls. The same is true regarding warning signs about machinery and other dangers. U.S. workers are more likely to be killed on the job than workers in other major industrialized countries (for example, thirty-six times more likely than in Sweden). One out of eleven U.S. workers will be killed or seriously injured at work.
  6. (33.)Inability to use telephone directories. Although some can find the name of a friend, far fewer have the sorting skills to use the yellow pages. Even the emergency numbers on the first page are beyond recognition for many of them. Even if illiterates can remember an emergency number they can call, they may still be in trouble. If they are away from home, the inability to read street signs may keep them from explaining their location well enough to get help in an emergency.[30]
  7. (34.)Death Rate of Children Tied to Mother's Education. A 1999 study by the World Bank showed that the average death rate for children under five years old whose mothers had no education was 144 per 1000 live births. This dropped to 106 per 1000 for mothers with a primary education only and to 68 per 1000 when the mothers had some secondary education also. When the infant's care giver cannot read the directions on baby formula or medications, a wrong guess can lead to injury or death of the child.[31]

Monetary costs of functional illiteracy[edit]

Not only is the extent of functional illiteracy much worse than most people may realize, but functional illiteracy is much more costly than most people may realize. Unfortunately functional illiteracy is costly not only for the functional illiterates but also for fluent readers — in several unexpected ways.

Determining the monetary costs of functional illiteracy is difficult because various methods of determining the number of functional illiterates are so imprecise. Also, sufficiently complete and accurate studies are only conducted periodically, not annually. No recent data for the monetary cost of functional illiteracy was found in a November 2014 internet search. The April 2012 final report by the World Literacy Foundation reported, "The cost of illiteracy to the global economy is estimated at USD $1.19 trillion."[32] This report did not specify what percentage of the illiteracy was functional illiteracy. This USD $1.19 trillion, if shared equally by everyone over the age of 15 years old around the world, would be $228 each year. (With a 2012 global population of 7.06 billion,[33] 74 percent[34] — 5.2 billion of them — are 15 years old or more.) The proportionate share of the cost of functional illiteracy will obviously be larger for individuals in the more developed nations than in the developing nations. Also, nations with higher rates of functional illiteracy will have a larger share of the costs. How much larger than $228 per year this will be (for persons older than 15 years in a developed nation with a high functional illiteracy rate, such as the U.S.) is unclear.

The costs of functional illiteracy take several forms: the governmental funding given to those who are unemployed or in poverty because of functional illiteracy, the higher recruiting and training costs for businesses since functional illiterates are in the labor pool, the lower productivity of functionally illiterate employees, the cost of preventing and correcting mistakes made by functionally illiterate employees, and the higher costs of real estate and consumer goods because functional illiterates are not — or cannot afford to be — customers. It is fairly obvious that if all functional illiteracy were magically eliminated today, taxes would not decrease tomorrow. The government would quickly find somewhere else to spend the money previously given to welfare recipients. But consumer goods would quickly become less expensive in a competitive U.S. market and the markets of all other capitalistic nations. This would simultaneously make U.S. goods more competitive in world markets, thereby helping expand the U.S. economy. Other English-speaking capitalistic nations would benefit similarly.

One source reports annual costs of functional illiteracy for adults in the U.S. (other than crime costs) as $3861 in 2007. This is higher than the $228 mentioned above because costs will be higher in 2014 (seven years later) and partially may be due to the previous inclusion of data for illiterates as well as for functional illiterates.[35]

The World Literacy Foundation did not report what percentage of the cost of illiteracy was due to crime committed by illiterates. Accurate global crime costs are unavailable, but there are a few detailed reports on U.S. crime.[36] and[37] David A. Anderson's 1999 report, one of the reports using the most complete list of different types of costs of crime, listed a $1.7 trillion annual cost, (or $1.1 trillion if you do not include the value of goods transferred from the victim to the criminal in theft and fraud) with an annual per capita burden of $4,118. Conservatively assuming that only 30 percent of the crime costs is due to functional illiteracy — it could be much more, see data in the previous section titled "Links with poverty and crime" — functional illiteracy accounts for an annual per capita cost of $1,235. The $4118 per capita cost distribution may be including children; if children were not included the per capita cost for functional illiteracy would be higher than $1,235. Another method of computing this cost is based upon 254 million people aged 15 years or more (79.8 percent of 319 total population in 2014[38]) sharing equally the $0.51 trillion ($1.7 trillion times 30 percent or more attributable to functional illiteracy) equals $2,007 annually. This compares to a 2007 report of $1,325 annual cost of crime due to functional illiteracy reported elsewhere.[39]


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.[40]

The most comprehensive and statistically accurate study of US adult literacy ever commissioned by the US government, titled Adult Literacy in America, was completed in 1993. It was a five-year, $14 million study involving lengthy interviews of 26,049 adults statistically chosen by age, gender, ethnicity, and location (urban, suburban, and rural locations from 12 different states across the US and including 1,100 prisoners from 80 prisons) to represent the entire US adult population. Interviewees were given reading material in English to read and were then questioned on what they had read. This was therefore a functional literacy test. The interviewees were grouped into five different literacy levels, depending upon how they responded to what they read. The prose, document, and quantitative literacy values were averaged for each grouping. This showed that of the 191 million US adults in 1993:

  • 22.0% (42.0 million) were Level 1 (least literate),
  • 26.7% (50.9 million) were Level 2,
  • 31.7% (60.5 million) were Level 3.
  • 16.3% (31.2 million) were Level 4, and
  • 3.3% ( 6.4 million) were Level 5 (most literate) [41]

A 2006 follow-up report — a study using a database of 19,714 interviewees — showed no overall statistically significant differences from the 1993 study.[42] The Adult Literacy in America study included data on how many days each year the interviewees worked full-time and part-time and the wages in dollars per hour they earned when working. Their yearly earnings were compared with the US Census Bureau threshold poverty level wages for an individual in 1993.[43] Level 1 and Level 2 wages, totaling 48.7% of the interviewees, were below the threshold poverty line. The Adult Literacy in America report also showed the percentage of each literacy level group that was in poverty. In Levels 1 and 2 combined, 31.2% of the interviewees were in poverty. In Levels 3 through 5, 10.1% of the interviewees were in poverty. Although there are many reasons for poverty, since the study statistically balanced the interviewees by age, gender, ethnicity, location, etc. and since there is no obvious provable differences other than literacy level, if 10.1% is taken as being the poverty NOT resulting from illiteracy and is deducted from the 31.2%, the resulting 21.1% due to illiteracy, when compared to 10.1%, provides strong evidence that 48.7% of US adults in 1993 (92.9 million of them) were functionally illiterate, 31.2% of them were in poverty, and they were more than twice as likely to be in poverty because of their illiteracy as for all other reasons combined. Although all 48.7% of the individuals in the study were functionally illiterate, only (!) 31.2% of them were in poverty because a literate spouse or other literate person(s) in the household could pull the family above the poverty line. Most families with a functional illiterate also receive financial assistance from government agencies, family members not in the household, friends, and charities.[44]

Although the Adult Literacy in America study shows a shockingly high functional illiteracy rate, the Adult Literacy in America study can be relied upon for the following reasons: (1) it used a careful statistical sampling to achieve a true representation of the population regarding age, gender, ethnicity, and geographical location. (2) It included development of an accurate objective means of judging reading ability based upon predetermined absolute standards. These standards measured functional literacy. (3) Educational Testing Service personnel used an accurate means of ensuring that test information was (a) gathered under strict guidelines prepared for evaluating test responses, (b) verified by independent outside testers, and (c) protected from being changed by anyone who might have any reason to want the data to show different results than they appeared to show. For example, no school was given access to the data until the study was complete.[45]

The Adult Literacy in America study shows a much lower literacy rate than has been previously reported. Jonathan Kozol's 1985 book, Illiterate America, explains why previously reported literacy rates are so inflated. It depends upon how the literacy data are gathered. Those who want to build up America's political and educational pride, as a means of keeping their jobs, can get varying results depending upon how large the interviewee groups are, how the interviewees are chosen, the starting and ending times when the literacy data are gathered, the method of determining the true literacy ability of the interviewees, and other factors. Kozol points out that the reported literacy rate for the US was determined by the US Census Bureau. The Census Bureau included questions about literacy in each census from 1840 to 1930.[46] Many who are most knowledgeable about the literacy rate believe that most of the changes in the literacy rate have been reductions in the literacy rate since the early 1960s.[47] The Census Bureau reintroduced questions about literacy in 1970 at the insistence of the military.

In the 1970 census, the only question asked about literacy was on grade level completion. The Census Bureau considered those with fifth grade completion or higher to be literate. A little more than five percent reported less than a fifth-grade education. For some unexplained reason, the Census Bureau decided that 80 percent of those with less than a fifth grade education were literate, so they reported a 99 percent literacy rate.

In 1980 the Census Bureau mailed out forms and based most of their calculations upon written responses to questions about grade completion. In addition they used a small sample of home visits and telephone interviews. They asked people what grade they had completed. If the answer was "Less than fifth grade,” they asked if the person could read and write. They then added the unsubstantiated answer to their record as an established fact. This method of determining an accurate account of the literacy rate is almost certain to underestimate illiteracy for the following reasons:

  • Illiterates would not respond to written forms, and their family — likely to also be illiterate — would not either.
  • Because of unemployment or low-paying jobs, fewer illiterates have telephones.
  • The underprivileged poor, and especially illiterates, may feel they are being singled out like criminals. They therefore have cause to distrust salespersons, bill collectors, or strangers knocking on their door seeking information — especially if the answer to the questions would be embarrassing. Home visits by Census Bureau workers who are not known by the person answering the door cannot be expected to yield accurate information under such circumstances.
  • As any teacher who is even moderately aware of what is happening in the classroom knows, grade-level completion does NOT equal grade-level competence. John Corcoran was passed to the next grade 13 times, even though he had not learned to read. Almost every teacher will tell you that literacy is the foundation of nearly all learning. Only a few physical education classes and a few arts and crafts classes — which do not require written tests to determine competency — can be passed without knowing how to read. Reading ability is required for class-work, homework, and testing in almost every class.
  • Those who have no permanent address, no phone number where they can be reached, no post office box, or no regular job — a condition shared by almost six million people in 1980, most of whom were illiterate — often are not counted. They cannot be found by the Census Bureau in time to be included in the census.[46]

The above information applies not only to the US but also to every nation where English is the native language. Due to the huge variation in literacy rates reported in most nations, especially under-developed nations, and for much the same reasons as reported above, the literacy rates reported for non-English-speaking nations (as well as for the English-speaking nations) is often unreliable. From a list of the 39 "most advanced" nations [48] the following literacy rates were reported: China, 95.1%; Portugal, 95.4%; Singapore, 95.9%, Australia, 96%; the other 35 all reported literacy rates of from 97 to 100%. Keep in mind that these are "literacy" rates, not "functional literacy" rates and, for some countries, may include persons who could only read a thousand or so simple words learned in the early grades in school.

The first step in understanding functional illiteracy in English is to report which nations have a large number of English-speaking people. Year 2000 data from Wikipedia shows that of the 7.199 billion people in the world, 1.295 billion of them speak English and 342 million of them speak English as their native language. English is used as a "second language" — to communicate with a person who does not speak a person's native language — far more than any other language. Only Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more people than English, and nearly all of the Mandarin Chinese speakers are in China. There are seven countries where all those who speaks English constitutes more than one percent of all those around the world whose native language is English, as follows.

Country Native English-

speaking people

 % of population

speaking English

 % of All Native

English speakers

United States 225,505,953 94.2 65.9
United Kingdom 58,200,000 97.7 17.0
Canada 18,232,195 85.6 5.3
Australia 15,581,334 97.0 4.6
South Africa 4,892,623 31.0 1.4
Ireland 4,400,000 98.4 1.3
New Zealand 3,500,000 97.8 1.0
Total 96.5

There are from 30 to 2,600,000 persons in sixty-nine other countries that speak English as their native language. Altogether, they constitute the other 3.5% of the native English speakers. Four nations with a population of more than five million people and with 85% or more who speak English as a "second language" are Netherlands, 90%; Sweden, 86%; Israel, 85%; and Denmark, 86%. One hundred thousand of those who speak English in Israel are native English speakers; all others in these four nations speak English only as a "second language."

The functional illiteracy for six of these nations (excluding South Africa which is not a predominantly English-speaking nation) is as follows. The Wikipedia article from which the above data were taken states, "Moreover, some numbers (in the Wikipedia article) have been calculated by Wikipedia editors from data in other sources, so these figures are imprecise and should be treated with great caution."(emphasis added) This also applies to all functional illiteracy rate calculations.

Country Functional Illiteracy Rate, Percent
1. United States [49] 48.7
2. United Kingdom[50] 21.8
3. Canada[51] 48.0
4. Australia[52] 47.0
5. Ireland[53] 23.0
6. New Zealand[54] 45.0

As shown above, there are various ways of determining functional illiteracy. The accuracy of the determination depends to an extent upon the lower average yearly earnings of those in poverty as being strongly indicative of functional illiteracy. This may explain the lower functional illiteracy rate of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The United Kingdom and Ireland may be using an advanced phonics reading education program such as Dr. Diane McGuinness refers to in her book, Why Our Children Can't Read, which has a higher success rate. Whatever the functional illiteracy rate, however, learning to read English, at present, requires at least two years longer to teach most children to read than in other languages, and even 21.8% is a high rate of functional illiteracy compared to the literacy rates of other advanced, industrialized, non-English-speaking nations which attempt to make a high school education available to every student.

An alternate indication of the literacy of various nations is the data from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).[55] The overall reading score for the OECD nations [56] was 493. The ranking of the English-speaking nations was Canada, 524; New Zealand, 521; Australia, 515; United States, 500; Ireland, 496; and United Kingdom, 494.[57] These results cast doubt on the reported functional illiteracy in the table above because the United Kingdom and Ireland have the lowest scores of any of the English-speaking nations in the PISA 2009 rankings!

Page 19 of the report of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Sutton Trust of London titled, "Social Mobility and Education Gaps in the Four Major Anglophone Countries"[58] quotes the data from the PISA 2009 report to show the "Percent of students with reading scores below level 2" (the three least literate of the eight levels) as being 14.2 for Australia, 10.3 for Canada, 18.4 for the United Kingdom, and 17.6 for the United States, as opposed to an OECD average of 18.8 percent.

Page 47 of the PISA 2009 report mentioned above and this note[59] gives the requirements of level 2. It is true that reading scores below level 2 are very low and should be noted, as in the Carnegie Corporation report above. It is almost certain, however, that students who cannot meet the level 2 requirements are functionally illiterate. Page 194 of the PISA 2009 report[55] lists the percentage of students in the six English-speaking nations whose literacy level was less than level 3: Australia, 34.7%; Canada, 30.5%; Ireland, 40.5%; New Zealand, 33.6%; United Kingdom, 43.4%; and United States, 42.1%. These data also strongly indicate that the functional illiteracy of the United Kingdom and Ireland should be higher than the table above shows – and that the functional illiteracy level for the United States shown by the extensive and comprehensive testing in the Adult Literacy in America study is typical of all English-speaking nations.

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.[60] With nearly four times as many English-speaking people, the US obviously has many more dropping out or graduating high school each year than the UK. One report states that more than two million such function illiterates are added to the US population each year.[61] Other native English-speaking would be expected to have a proportionate number of functional illiterates added each year.

In addition to the information presented and documented here, there is also a large amount of other readily-available information about functional illiteracy. Although some improvements have been made, thoughtful persons who carefully examine the evidence may be puzzled. As they discover the shockingly high functional illiteracy rate of English-speaking nations they may wonder why no overall statistically significant improvements have ever been made in the effectiveness of teaching reading. There are some obvious reasons.

First, most people do not realize the extent and seriousness of the problem of functional illiteracy. This is because most people are busy meeting their priorities: their family needs, their emotional needs, their occupational needs, their spiritual needs, and their recreational and hobby pursuits, not necessarily in that order. As a result, they seldom spend time reading or investigating something in which they are not already interested.

Second, the media are not very interested in literacy. Although they may have become aware of some of the problems with literacy, it is "old" information. It is not "news" unless some interesting and "newsworthy" information becomes available which has not already been reported.

Third, those who are somewhat interested in literacy do not spend much time seriously investigating the problem of functional illiteracy for several reasons: (1) they do not realize it is a serious problem, (2) they believe that educational and political authorities can and will eventually solve any educational problems that exist, (3) if they become aware of how long the problem of functional illiteracy has existed without any significant improvement they may resign themselves to the belief that the problem cannot be solved, and in any case: (4) they have no idea whatsoever of how to solve the problem and believe that they do not have the responsibility of doing anything to help end functional illiteracy.

Regardless of these difficulties, there IS a solution to the problem of functional illiteracy, as the following section, "Ending functional illiteracy," clearly demonstrates.

Research findings[edit]

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.[62]

See also[edit]


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  5. ^ Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America (Plume ed.). New York: New American Library. p. 226. ISBN 0-452-25807-3. 
  6. ^ Hunter, Carmen (1985). Adult Illiteracy in the United States (McGraw-Hill Paperbacks ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. p. 51. ISBN 0-07-031369-5. 
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  11. ^ "Literacy Statistics". Retrieved 23 February 2010. 
  12. ^ Cleckler, Bob. "Learn to Read, Teach Fluent Reading and Literacy, End Illiteracy". Extent of the Problem. Literacy Research Associates, Inc. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
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  15. ^ Flesch, Rudolph (1955). Why Johnny Can't Read (First Perennial Library edition ed.). New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. p. 2. ISBN 0-06-091340-1. 
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  17. ^ Cleckler, Bob (2009). Let's End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition. Salt Lake City, UT: American University & Colleges Press. pp. 49–50. ISBN 1-58982-230-7. 
  18. ^ Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America. New York: New American Library. p. 27. ISBN 0-452-25807-3. 
  19. ^ Hunter, Carmen (1985). Adult Illiteracy in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. p. 37. ISBN 0-07-031369-5. 
  20. ^ Klein, Edward, "Everything Would Be Better If More People Could Read." PARADE magazine, 21 May 1989, page 5
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  22. ^ Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America (Plume ed.). New York: New American Library. p. 226. ISBN 0-452-25807-3. 
  23. ^ Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America (Plume ed.). New York: New American Library. p. 229. ISBN 0-452-25807-3. 
  24. ^ Hunter, Carmen (1985). Adult Illiteracy in the United States (McGraw-Hill Paperbacks ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. p. 51. ISBN 0-07-031369-5. 
  25. ^ Rolando, Joe (12 July 1989). "Forum Sees Poor U.S. Education As Threat to Competitiveness". The Salt Lake Tribune: D5. 
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  27. ^ Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America (Plume ed.). New York: New American Library. pp. 24, 25, 28. ISBN 0-452-25807-3. 
  28. ^ Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America (Plume ed.). New York: New American Library. pp. 23–25, 28. ISBN 0-452-25807-3. 
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  31. ^ Silverman, Sanford (2003). Spelling for the 21st Century. Cleveland, OH: self-published. p. 30. ISBN 1591096588. 
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  45. ^ McGuinness, Diane (1999). Why Our Children Can't Read (First Touchstone Edition ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 7–8. ISBN 0-684-85356-6. 
  46. ^ a b Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America (First Plume Printing, March 1986 ed.). New York: New American Library. pp. 37–39. ISBN 0-452-25807-3. 
  47. ^ Bennett, William (1994). The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (Touchstone ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 82–86. ISBN 0-671-88326-7. 
  48. ^ The 39 nations chosen as representative "advanced nations" are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea (South), Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and United States. Although there may be quibbling about whether some of the nations included here should be removed and some other nations should be added, for the purpose of merely comparing with English-speaking nations, this list is certainly representative.
  49. ^ Cleckler, Bob (2009). Let's End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: American University & colleges Press. pp. 15–26. ISBN 1-58982-230-7. 
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  55. ^ a b "" (PDF). Retrieved 4 November 2014.  Page 47 of this report shows the type of abilities required for each of the eight literacy levels. Page 194 shows a comparison of the OECD nations and percentage of students in each of the eight literacy levels.
  56. ^ in order of overall reading scores: Shanghai-China, 556; Korea, 539; Finland, 536; Hong Kong-China, 533; Singapore, 526; Canada, 524; New Zealand, 521; Japan, 520; Australia, 515; Netherlands, 508; Belgium, 506; Norway, 503; Estonia, 501; Switzerland, 501; Poland, 500; Iceland, 500; United States, 500; Liechtenstein, 499; Sweden, 497; Germany, 497; Ireland, 496; France, 496; Chinese Taipei, 495; Denmark, 496; United Kingdom, 494; Hungary, 494; and Portugal, 489
  57. ^ "" (PDF). Retrieved 4 November 2014. 
  58. ^ "" (PDF). Retrieved 4 November 2014. 
  59. ^ Some tasks at this level require the reader to locate one or more pieces of information, which may need to be inferred and may need to meet several conditions. Others require recognizing the main idea in a text, understanding relationships, or construing meaning within a limited part of the text when the information is not prominent and the reader must make low level inferences. Tasks at this level may involve comparisons or contrasts based upon a single feature in the text. Typical reflective tasks at this level require readers to make a comparison or several connections between the text and outside knowledge, by drawing on personal experience and attitudes.
  60. ^ Kirsty Scott. "Sounds incredible". Retrieved 10 June 2014. 
  61. ^ Gladstone, Rick (February 21, 1988). "Reading Writing on the Wall? America May Face Literacy Crisis". The Salt Lake Tribune: 4F. 
  62. ^ SASE - Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics — Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work Henry Milner, Umeå University and Université Laval, accessed May 2006

External links[edit]