Functional illiteracy

When an individual has learned to read and write but has no literacy or arithmetic skills, he is considered a functional illiterate. This person knows literacy and calculus procedures but does not really understand them. The concept of functional illiteracy differs from that of illiteracy in that illiteracy refers to the total inability to read or write simple sentences in any language. In any case, not only is illiteracy a problem for social development, but functional illiteracy is also a problem. Indeed, according to UNESCO, this incapacity, which has already reached 73 million people worldwide, represents an obstacle to joining the changes of the present era.  

Functional illiteracy

Related topics

School dropout, literacy

What is functional illiteracy?

Functional illiteracy refers to an individual's inability to apply literacy and numeracy skills effectively to everyday tasks. People with functional illiteracy may have studied at school and still not have the ability to think and understand what they read and hear. This being the case, a functional illiterate will, for example, have difficulty reading a newspaper, a book or a contract. Likewise, they will not be able, for example, to perform a simple arithmetic calculation as a rule of three.

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 listed below:

Examples of functional illiteracy


Compared to other countries in the Latin American region, Chile has a favorable literacy situation. 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 listen to, according to 2014 statistics. These data were verified thanks to a Since test (System for Measuring the Quality of Education) applied to high school students.


According to data from the National Statistics Institute, there are currently around 600,000 illiterate people over the age of 16 in Spain, which is equivalent to 1.7% of the population. Of these 600 thousand subjects, only 12800 are undergoing some type of training that could enable them to overcome functional illiteracy. The older they are, the greater the number of functional illiterates. Among those between the ages of 30 and 49, 94200 are unable to perform “complex” reading and writing procedures, while among those between the ages of 50 and 70, 139000 fall into this category. This figure rises to 399600 among those over 70 years of age.


According to studies by Cerlac, in Colombia, of every 10 students, 6 do not understand what they read. Likewise, 44% of the population over 14 do not have the habit of reading and 67% read out of obligation or with disinterest. 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 Pisa Test carried out in 2009, 81% of secondary school students do not have sufficient competencies to carry out cognitive tasks with a certain degree of complexity. On the other hand, the results are similar for 63% of high school students. It should be noted that only 2% of the Mexican population has the habit of reading.


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

Written by Gabriela Briceño V.

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