Functional illiteracy


When an individual has learned to read and write but does not have literacy skills or arithmetic skills, they are considered functionally illiterate. This person knows literacy and numeracy procedures but does not really understand them . The concept of functional illiteracy differs from the concept of illiteracy since the latter refers to the total inability to read or write simple sentences in any language. In any case, not only illiteracy is a problem for social development, functional illiteracy is also. Indeed, according to Unesco, this disability, which already reaches 73 million personnel worldwide, represents an obstacle to joining the changes of the current era.  

What is functional illiteracy?

Functional illiteracy refers to the inability of an individual to apply literacy and numeracy skills effectively to perform daily tasks. People with functional illiteracy may have attended school and still not have the ability to think and understand what they read and hear. This being the case, a functionally illiterate person will, for example, have difficulty reading a newspaper, a book or a contract . Also, you cannot , for example, perform a simple arithmetic calculation such as a rule of three.

  • Characteristics of functional illiteracy
  • Examples of functional illiteracy

Characteristics of functional illiteracy

The characteristics of functional illiteracy will depend on multiple factors , however, some that are frequently present can be mentioned , such as those indicated below:

  • Difficulty performing simple arithmetic operations .
  • Difficulty reading books, newspapers, magazines and long and complex texts in general . Ability to read short texts that do not require processing complex information.
  • Difficulty filling out forms correctly.
  • Difficulty to apprehend, to relate the reading with the previous knowledge and to give their opinion about what is read.
  • Inability to read maps .
  • Inability to use a dictionary.
  • Inability to process the information received and transform it into consequential actions.
  • Difficulty following written instructions.
  • Disinterest in economic, social and political issues. So usually only interest shown by trivial issues or entertainment.
  • Difficulty for verbal communication and for the clear expression of ideas . Grammatical and lexical deficiency.
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Preference for television and audiovisual media over reading.
  • Difficulty exercising a social, civic or economic function.
  • Inability to act critically and with ease.
  • Difficulty using information and communication technologies effectively and working with a computer and tools such as a word processor , spreadsheet, or web browser.

Examples of functional illiteracy


Compared to other countries in the Latin American region , Chile has a favorable situation in terms of literacy. This country has a literacy rate of 98%. However, there is a functional illiteracy rate since within this group of literate people, there is a percentage of 44.3 who have difficulty understanding what they read or hear, according to statistics from 2014. These data were verified thanks to to a Simce test (System for the Measurement of the Quality of Education) applied to high school students.


According to data from the National Statistics Institute, currently exist in Spain around 600,000 illiterate people over 16 years, equivalent to 1.7% of the population. Of these 600,000 subjects, only 12,800 attend some type of training that could allow them to overcome functional illiteracy. The older the age, the greater the number of functionally illiterates. Among subjects aged 30-49 years, 94,200 have an inability to perform “complex” literacy procedures, while among those aged 50-70 years, 139,000 fall into this category. This figure rises to 399,600 among those over 70 years of age.


According to studies by Cerlac, in Colombia, out of 10 students, 6 do not understand what they read. Likewise, 44% of the population over 14 years of age do not have the habit of reading and 67% read out of obligation or with no interest. Apparently, the cause of this situation comes from the family environment in which the interest in reading is not transmitted to young people.


According to the results of the Pisa Test carried out in 2009, 81% of secondary education students do not have sufficient skills to carry out cognitive tasks of a certain degree of complexity. On the other hand, the results are similar for 63% of upper secondary education students. It should be noted that only 2% of the Mexican population has the habit of reading.


According to certain data, in Guatemala, functional illiteracy is not really associated with an educational problem but rather with social and economic factors. In this country, an average of 0.8 or 0.9 books is read per year per person, which means that so little is read that not even one book is read per year.

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