Unmasking Functional Illiteracy

We’ve all had to pretend to know something. Whether we’ve bluffed our way through a job interview, inflated a research paper, or used “I’ll tell you when you’re older” on our kids, we’re all familiar with putting on a mask of competence once in a while. But what if you had to do it every day? What if you had to pretend to know how to read? Let’s take a closer look at functional illiteracy, and how you can help to bridge that gap into full literacy.

What is functional illiteracy?

Most of us learned to read at such a young age that we don’t remember that there’s a formula behind sounding words out, identifying the letters involved and deciphering their sounds to add them into words. It has become a subconscious process, and we do it thousands of times a day.

Functionally illiterate people “read” differently. One strategy is to recognize the shapes of words and memorize them for future use. Mortgage is shaped like no other word in our language, so when the bill arrives, they know to pay it. Different fonts and text designs can make this more difficult.

Another pattern is association, seeing the shape of the word and associating it with whatever it is labeling. You don’t need to be able to sound out black beans if the shape of those words are always next to a picture of black beans on a can. 

How common is functional illiteracy?

According to Phillip C. Schlechty in his paper Shaking up the Schoolhouse: How to Support and Sustain Educational Innovation, “Today, 99 percent of all adult Americans can read in the sense that they can decode words. The illiteracy rate that concerns us today is the functional illiteracy rate. Nearly half of adult Americans are functionally illiterate; they cannot read well enough to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level. Literal illiteracy has been eradicated. What remains to be eradicated is functional illiteracy, which represents a newer, higher standard.”

So virtually all illiteracy among adults is functional in nature. This is obviously a sliding scale, with different standards for what a basic reading level is, but the problem still remains for a large portion of the American population. While Schlechty puts the number at “nearly half,” other sources report that 1 in 7 adults has problems with literacy.

Why do adults hide their illiteracy?

The biggest factor is embarrassment. A social stigma surrounds illiteracy. After all, when our society relies so much on the ability to read, and it seems like “everyone” can do it but you can’t, you’ll naturally feel embarrassed. So people tend to mask their illiteracy with functional illiteracy, bluffing their way through the reading requirements of everyday life.

Yet this is too great a problem for us to leave this stigma in place, especially when there’s so much we can do to help. At Reading to New Heights, it’s our mission to eliminate adult illiteracy in all its forms and the stigma around it. We offer classes and resources to help adults gain and improve reading skills. And you can be a part of it. We always have the need of both volunteers and donors to help support our program. Or you can simply share this post. 

Together we can break the stigma, unmask functional literacy, and help every adult read to new heights!

Dyslexia and Illiteracy

October is National Dyslexia Month. If you’ve never battled dyslexia, you may think it’s simply a disorder that makes kids mix up p and q. A few special language classes and it’s all fixed. But dyslexia is much more complex than that, and experts believe that it is the number one cause of adult illiteracy. 

A Significant Overlap

Dyslexia is more common than you might think. The International Dyslexia Association reports that 15-20% of the population shows symptoms of the disorder, which causes difficulties with certain language skills, reading in particular. 

It would make sense, then, that 36 million American adults struggle with some form of illiteracy. Dyslexia is a lifelong disorder, often first appearing when children learn to read in school. But when many illiterate adults were that age, the scientific community didn’t know all they do now about dyslexia, despite the fact that the term originated in 1887. It is likely that many students went undiagnosed. Educators, overworked and underresourced, simply saw these kids as poor readers, having low aptitude for language. 

The Shame Factor

This constant low rating of a student’s learning skills can bring about feelings of shame and can cause him to distance himself from reading. That shame only compounds as he becomes an adult and watches his peers advance in life with fine reading skills, leaving him behind. This is a common reason that many illiterate adults never learn to read. They keep it a secret.

Unfortunately, this embarrassment can also lead to a lack of dyslexia diagnosis. Without regular reading experience, they don’t know they have a disorder, assuming instead that they just have “low aptitude” for reading.  

A Barrier to Communication

Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia isn’t just about reading. It affects all language functions, including speaking and comprehension when listening. So not only do dyslexic adults face the stigma of illiteracy, they often have trouble communicating what they experience as they try to read, and understanding the disorder when it is explained to them. This further hinders diagnosis. 


While the problem may seem frustrating, especially if someone you know is illiterate due to dyslexia, you can do more than simply putting an arm around them and assuring them, “It’s not your fault,” like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

At Reading to New Heights, we understand that dyslexia is a major contributing factor to adult illiteracy. Identifying and helping people adjust to it takes special skills, plenty of training, and lots of patience. We are committed to eliminate adult illiteracy in the DFW metro, even among the dyslexic community. You can make a difference by volunteering with us, donating, or simply sharing this blog post. Literacy is possible, and we can achieve it together. 

5 Ways Adult Illiteracy Affects Health

What if you could reduce America’s healthcare spending by hundreds of billions of dollars, all without dealing with insurance, government health sponsorship, or lobbyists? The answer isn’t magic. It’s literacy. According to PBS, 36 million American adults are functionally illiterate, and this leads to $232 billion per year in healthcare related costs, mostly due to a misunderstanding of health information. Here’s why that happens, and how you can help

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3 Major Barriers Adults Face when Learning to Read

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read many other things today. From street signs to text messages, from news articles to recipes, if you’re awake, you’re reading. Unless you can’t read. It can be difficult for many literate adults to envision a world in which every label, every TV screen, every warning sign, is covered with mysterious, indecipherable script. Perhaps you’ve felt this way if you’ve visited a country that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet as we do for English. But illiteracy affects 36 million American adults, seriously throttling their opportunities. Here are three major barriers to adult literacy, and how you can help break them down.

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