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!

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25 reviews
  • film
    1:48 pm - December 4, 2020. Reply

    Major thanks for the blog. Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic. Nanette Cyril Lehman

  • Barbara Randle
    7:07 pm - March 3, 2022. Reply

    l’ve been trying to pass the GED for 40 years! am 72 and raised 5 children I was so afraid.

  • Colorado
    2:55 am - October 3, 2022. Reply

    I just found out from my daughter in law that my son is unable to read…he has memorized words and comes to her to learn a word. I had no idea! Tonight I found this article. She told me but then immediately regretted it and asked that I not say anything. Their son, is now having trouble reading!

    • Reading to New Heights
      3:18 pm - November 21, 2022. Reply

      Reading To New Heights is available to your son, if he is ready. Of course discreet and free of charge to him.