Functional illiteracy and the case for reading

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The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) defines literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

According to UNESCO, 775 million (or 16%) of the global population, age 15 and over, were fully illiterate in 2010. A far cry from the middle ages when the ability to read and write was limited to the clergy and aristocracy. Basic Literacy improved hugely over the past 500 years due to:

  • the invention of printing in the 15th century
  • the translation of the Bible from Latin into vernacular
  • revolutionary political movements that made universal literacy a priority since the 18th century (one of communism’s legacies in countries like the USSR, China and Cuba was a huge reduction in illiteracy)
  • the introduction of compulsory and public education
  • the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century made paper and books affordable to more classes of society

However, basic literacy statistics paint a very limited picture of true or functional literacy. While basic illiteracy covers people who cannot read or write at all, functionally illiterate people can read and write simple sentences with a limited vocabulary, but cannot read or write well enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life. That includes being incapable of reading and comprehending job advertisements, newspaper articles, banking paperwork, tax returns etc. A worrying aspect of functional illiteracy is its high incidence in so-called developed countries. The illiterates of today are not people who never went to school; they are, for the most part, individuals who have spent eight to twelve years in public schools.

Although the USA has a basic literacy rate of 99%, a series of studies has shown that the picture for functional literacy is much bleaker.
The US Department of Education, conducted a large scale assessment of adult proficiency in 2003, focusing on prose, document, and quantitative skills:

  • Only 13% of the sample could function at the highest levels in all three categories.
  • Roughly 40% were at either basic or below basic levels of proficiency in all three categories.
  • More than 21% of adult Americans were found to be functionally illiterate.

The results for college graduates were also pretty abysmal, showing a huge decline in prose and document proficiency over a ten year period:

  • In 1992 40 percent of all graduates were found to be proficient in prose and 37 percent demonstrated proficiency in document literacy.
  • In 2003 the percentages were 31 percent and 25 percent respectively.

Americans do not fare much better with regards to civic, cultural and historical literacy either.
A 2008 study by Frederick M. Hess examined the knowledge of history and literature possessed by 17 year-old high school students in the United States:

  • Less than 50% could identify the Renaissance
  • Less than 50% knew during which half century the American Civil War was fought
  • More than 25% erroneously thought Christopher Columbus reached the Americas after 1750
  • A third did not know that the Bill of Rights was the source of their rights to freedom of religion and speech.
  • Nearly a quarter could not correctly identify Adolf Hitler
  • Barely 50% could identify the plot of George Orwell’s 1984

Last year, the Pew Research Center (a non-partisan fact tank) conducted a survey of over 1000 American adults:

  • 50% could not find Syria on a map
  • 31% could not identify the € symbol for the Euro
  • 43% could not identify the Chinese national flag
  • 30% did not know the unemployment rate of their own country
  • 48% did not know who the secretary of state was

The USA is not the only developed country with entrenched functional illiteracy among its population. Researchers from Sheffield University in the UK revealed in 2010 that 17% of 16 to 19 year old students were functionally illiterate, unable to comprehend anything more than the most basic questions, with a reading standard at or below that of an 11 year old.

Many reasons have been given for the prevalence of functional illiteracy in wealthy countries – countries with internationally celebrated tertiary institutions and where huge amounts are spent on education annually. Schooling and education policies are usually pointed out as the main culprits. That may be the case to a certain extent, but the commercial dumbing down of mass entertainment and the accompanying celebration of the lowest common denominator has had an even further reaching effect on how and what people think.

Nielsen Research calculated that Americans averaged almost 5 hours of TV viewing per day in 2009. That excludes DVDs and other rented viewing material. Compare that to the Pew Research Center’s 2011 research that showed that among Americans 16 years and older, 19% had read no books over the previous 12 months, and 25% had read 1-3 books over a whole year. That’s almost 45% of the population who reads almost nothing.

The decline of reading can be traced back to the 1930s when pulp fiction was cheap entertainment for the increasingly literate masses. A few pulp fiction authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler even became pop culture icons, inspiring millions with memorable characters like Tarzan of the Jungle and hard-boiled gum-shoe, Philip Marlowe. Their work fulfilled a valuable function at a time when only the affluent could afford regular reading material. At 10 cents an issue almost everyone could access the world of reading. The advent of television and movies gradually replaced pulp fiction as the most popular form of entertainment and was the start of a picture based rather than verbal or written culture, which undermined people’s ability to use their imagination and reduced their attention spans.

So what?

Well first there is the money. UNESCO and several other institutions have pointed out that there is a correlation between income and illiteracy. SIL International, a US linguistics NGO, calculated that countries with a literacy rate below 40% averaged less than $600 per capita income, while countries with a literacy rate above 98% averaged more than $12,000 per capita income.

The USA with a per capita GDP of $49,000 and a basic literacy rate of 99% seems to fit the bill at the top end. However when you consider the figures for American functional illiteracy (21%) and you compare it to the USA’s income inequality (a GINI coefficient after taxes and transfers of 0.378, which places it in the 31st position out of 34 OECD countries), a case could be made out that there is also a correlation between functional illiteracy and inequality in society.

A functional illiteracy rate of over 20% compared to an unemployment rate of 7.6% (March 2013) means that millions of Americans are working for low wages in a very skewed economy. The same would hold true for other developed economies, like the United Kingdom. In effect the ignorance of the masses plays into the hands of big business by ensuring a steady stream of cheap, uneducated labour.

Politicians form another group that benefits from institutionalised ignorance. By feeding on the voting public’s historical and civic illiteracy, incompetent governments stay in power. Entrenched ignorance created by functional illiteracy waters down democracy and citizen rights. A situation that is all too apparent in South Africa today, where over 50% of families own no books for recreational or leisure time reading, and many communities have no access to libraries.

Globally books do still sell though. E-book sales are increasing year on year, while more people are reading articles, newspapers and magazines online. The power of the modern media conglomerates with their huge marketing budgets has created a more subtle form of illiteracy. Consumers, already bombarded with avalanches of cheap information, sound bites and constant advertising across all mediums, tend to gravitate to the lowest common denominator. Books that are filled with derivative, superficial and low brow drivel, invariably occupy the top spots in the bestseller lists. To put that statement into perspective:

Nielsen data for the top 100 bestsellers’ list in 2012 (based on print versions sold at 31,500 bookshops around the world):

  • EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy occupied the top three places with 10,509,988 copies.
  • Another trilogy, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games (also in the top 10) sold 2,113,017 copies.

The rest of the top 10 consisted of a cookery book, a dieting book, the Guinness Book of World Records and another erotic adult romance book.

Hilary Mantel’s historical novel and winner of the 2012 Man Booker prize, Bring up the bodies, did sell just under 200,000 copies, but that’s about it for the critically acclaimed novels of 2012 on the top 100 list.

What is especially frightening is that sales for the above mentioned top 10 bestsellers made up almost half of the 29 million copies sold of the whole of the top 100.

It is not only the written word that is being dumbed down and mass marketed for the undiscerning of the world. Big movie studios have been rehashing story lines for some time now, but it was the globalisation of the entertainment industry that has given them their biggest shot at making mega bucks. There is a very good reason why the top 10 grossing movies for 2012 were all special effects ridden superhero, fantasy or animation franchises. The story lines are simple and one dimensional enough to transcend language and cultural barriers in emerging markets like India and China. Have a look at what it meant in monetary terms:




Worldwide Gross


The Avengers

Marvel Studios / Disney




MGM / Columbia



The Dark Knight Rises

Warner Bros. / Legendary



The Hobbit

Warner Bros. / MGM / Newline



Ice Age: Continental Drift

Fox / Blue Sky



The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2

Lionsgate / Summit Entertainment



The Amazing Spider-Man

Columbia / Marvel Entertainment



Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Paramount / DreamWorks



The Hunger Games




Men in Black 3



In comparison, Amour, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, grossed less than $20,000,000. A clear sign that nuanced, layered stories are not what the majority of the public wants and definitely not what the big studios are churning out. It also reveals a stunted cultural chauvinism and wilful ignorance among consumers on the one hand and profit hungry cynicism among studio executives on the other hand.

Another dangerous form of ignorance was brilliantly described in 1930 by the Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, in his classic work, The Revolt of the Masses. In a chapter titled The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation’, he wrote about the phenomenon of the ‘learned ignoramus’. He describes the learned ignoramus as the bourgeois educated man or self-satisfied young man, the specialist who believes he has it all and extends the command he has of his subject to others, contemptuous of his ignorance in all of them.

In the recent past this type of self-satisfied ignorance was generally typified by individuals in the financial and legal professions. The 2008 global financial crisis was in part due to clever bankers, aided by their lawyers and accountants, finding ways around the intentions of financial regulations while (sometimes) remaining within the letter of the law. It has been pointed out that many did not understand the risks of their actions due to globalization, business complexity and an intricate tax code.

An extreme example would be that of the previous president of the United States, George W. Bush. Despite receiving a Bachelor of Arts in History from Yale he felt it necessary to ask the Brazilian president if there are black people in his country. It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so bone chillingly scary coming from the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. On top of that, Bush, with an MBA from Harvard, also managed to oversee the national debt increase from $5.6 trillion in 2000 to $11.3 trillion in 2008.

The excessive and unnecessary jargon of many professions has been criticised for creating artificial barriers to access and understanding, thus contributing to functional illiteracy. Numerous surveys have shown that jargon promotes distrust, confusion and is perceived as a sign of lazy thinking and obfuscation.

Social media has also contributed to functional illiteracy by promoting a caption and skimming mentality that negates deeper meaning. The average online American spends about 7 hours per month just on social networks. Not much time left for the gentle art of reading if you add TV, gaming and other nefarious electronic activities.

Which brings us to the question if we are holding all the role players accountable for their part in perpetuating functional illiteracy and ignorance:

  • Teacher trade unions that hold school children’s education to ransom with strikes.
  • Governments that do not invest in communication infrastructure, affordable internet access, online libraries and quality public broadcaster content.
  • Local municipalities that do not invest in community libraries.
  • Newspapers and magazines that pander to sensationalism and superficial journalism.
  • Media conglomerates that only focus on the lowest common denominator.
  • Parents who do not inculcate a culture of reading in their children.

The case for (quality) reading:

  • Children who enjoy reading tend to have higher IQ and EQ levels.
  • Regular readers have better language and conversational skills. They are also better at understanding and expressing nuance due to an expanded vocabulary and understanding of semantics.
  • Reading improves our ability to interpret information, which leads to better and more informed decision making skills.
  • Varied reading promotes a holistic as opposed to insular world view, due to a wider and deeper paradigm. That means less xenophobia, racism and bigotry.
  • The more you read the higher your levels of immersion and reflection, which facilitates more effective learning processes, cognitive skills and critical thought.
  • Reading extensively supports creative problem solving in business and other areas.
  • It also increases emotional intelligence, which enhances the ability to create positive relationships (a better and deeper understanding of the human matrix).

The Information Age has brought with it 24/7 connectivity and an all pervasive screen culture that has put the average person under an information overload as never before in history. The challenge is to make full use of the new opportunities and technology without succumbing to the paths of least resistance and the slow death of wilful ignorance. Our world may soon reach the point where nobody can say: ‘I didn’t know’. The final accountability rests with each individual to release him or herself from the shackles of ignorance and mediocrity.

1 thought on “Functional illiteracy and the case for reading

  1. Massive research material mastered into a succinct article. Thank you.
    Unlike with many depressing realities of the tendencies and worldwide patterns , this is one we can and should all address. Large corporations can undo some of the harm they cause by donating libraries to schools and rural towns and do in-house learning and reading awareness programs.

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