What is ‘functional literacy’?

Have you ever wondered why people who have gone to school for 12 years—or even more, may still struggle to fill out a form, or read a map? That’s because literacy is one skill with many applications.

These students in Cameroon are eager to learn to read and write in their mother-tongue. Thank you for making this possible!

These students in Cameroon are eager to learn to read and write in their mother-tongue. Thank you for making this possible!

Educators talk about multiple literacies: numeric literacy, graphic literacy, musical literacy, and more. We apply the basic skill of reading and writing to many functional tasks. Not many of us are good at all aspects, so we might say we are all “functionally illiterate” in some areas.

Another way of thinking about literacy is with expanding circles.

  1. The inner circle is the basic ability to decode the meaning of symbols, i.e. letters on the page, and also communicate our thoughts using these symbols.
  2. A second, larger circle might include practical uses of this basic ability, such as writing a check, applying for a job, or understanding the label on your child’s cough medicine.
  3. A third, even larger, circle we might call critical literacy. At this stage, a reader is able to make judgments about what they are reading. Is the writer trying to influence me? Does this information align with my own experience? What are the implications if I do (or don’t do) what the writer suggests?

These are important issues for all of us as we read and learn.

But what about people who first learned to read in a language that was not familiar to them? Even though they may be able to sound out the words, grasping the meaning and applying the skills will be much more difficult. How much easier to begin with one’s strongest language, to learn the basic skills of reading and writing in the language a person understands most clearly!

Building the foundation of functional and critical literacy BEFORE transferring those skills to a second language leads to much stronger proficiency. Functional literacy skills will then follow naturally.