In a few of our blog posts we’ve mentioned the statistic that 32 million (1 in 7) adults in the U.S. are considered “functionally illiterate.” There have been some questions about the meaning of this mysterious term “functionally illiterate,” so I have provided something in the way of an explanation below.
The most frequently referenced definition of “functional literacy” is from UNESCO’s conference in 1978:
“A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community’s development.”
The UNESCO definition implies that a functionally literate person possesses a literacy level that equips him or her to flourish in society. A functionally illiterate person, on the other hand, may be able to perform very basic reading and writing, but cannot do so at the level required for many societal activities and jobs.
What does functional illiteracy look like? Here are a couple of anecdotes from a 2011 CBS story entitled “Battling the Scourge of Illiteracy”:
Walter Long is 59 years old and lives in the town outside of Pittsburgh where he grew up. He’s got a good job with the county water board, a nice house where he has raised four kids, and a wife who loves him.
And for years, Walter Long also had a secret: He could not read.
He faked it well, until one night when he was reading – or pretending to read – a story to his four-year-old daughter, Joanna.
“My daughter looked up at me and said, ‘That’s not the way mom read it to me,'” Long recalls with emotion. “It’s still hard to say to a four-year-old, that you can’t read.
Lavonne McKinstry drives a school bus for the greater Pittsburgh school system. Ten years ago she would not have had the job because she couldn’t read well enough to pass the driving test. Like Long, she hid her lack of reading skills from everyone – even her daughters.
“I was embarrassed, I was ashamed,” McKinstry says. “It hurt.”