What is Functional Illiteracy?

Functional illiteracy is the ability to read simple sentences, yet the inability to read at a level that would allow one to function successfully in society. A functionally illiterate person can read the sentences: “I can sit.” or “My name is Jane.” Yet, they cannot read the sentence: “Fill out this application and we will contact you shortly.” A functionally illiterate person’s low reading level impairs them from deciphering street signs, job applications, directions, bank account information, prescriptions, and the list goes on and on.

20% of US adults are considered functionally illiterate. If this does not shock you, I don’t know what can. Functional illiteracy is a serious threat to individuals and society at large. When we allow students to go through the education system as functionally illiterate students, we essentially are streamlining them toward jail, poverty, teenage pregnancy and welfare.

As parents, teachers and reading tutors, it is our job to ensure that every student becomes functionally literate. That is, that every student can read and write well enough to fill out a job application or design a resume or read a book to their own future children independently and effectively. How do we end functional illiteracy in our society?

First off, it is the role of parents, teachers and reading tutors to identify when a student is below grade level in reading. When a student is below grade level in reading, they are at risk for functional illiteracy.

Here is an example of how the cycle can be stopped: James is a student in the second grade. His peers can read significantly higher-level texts than he can. He is afraid to read out-loud in class, because he doesn’t want to expose his lower reading ability. He begins to rely heavily on the pictures to read books in-class and to his parents. The pictures give him an idea of what the story is about, and thus a way to essentially “pretend to read.” He also begins to memorize texts, which frees him from the act of decoding words.

James’s school, teacher and parents think he is a good reader. The school and teacher do not want to identify James’s low reading scores, because this will reflect poorly on them. The parent does not want to identify James’s low reading scores, because they would rather live in blissful denial. James is pushed on toward the third grade. His chances of learning how to read become dismal. Since he has missed K-2 reading instruction, he is at serious risk for functional illiteracy.

At this point, is there any hope for James? The answer is yes. However, his parents are presented with the chaotic, complicated task of finding a qualified reading tutor in a world of charlatans. Many people claim they know phonics, but lack the ability to instruct students in phonemic awareness, systematic phonics instruction, segmentation/manipulation, decodables and the most common sight words. If the parents find a qualified reading tutor that meets with James at least twice a week, he has a chance to become a functionally literate adult. But the task of finding a QUALIFIED reading tutor is a tall order. Having a teaching credential does not make one qualified. In fact, many teachers lack a nuanced understanding of phonics and reading instruction.

Phonemic Awareness: Why is it important?


Beginning readers of English and other alphabetic languages must develop phonemic awareness. Early on in the process of learning how to read, our brains do not know that we are attempting to engage in an activity called reading. In fact, to our brain, words are initially just objects, like a chair or a tree. We can see that our brains initially process words as objects because of the location of activity in FMRI’s when nonreaders or beginning readers try to read. Phonemic awareness is a process of training our brains to process words as units of sounds that can unlock meaning. Slowly, as we build phonemic awareness our brains begin to send messages to the language area—Wernicke’s area—of our brain when reading. Thus, instead of processing words as objects, our brains begin to send signals to the language area of our brain when we are phonemically aware and engaging in reading. When the language area of our brain is stimulated, readers can use their strengths when reading. The language area of our brain is far more adept at reading than the area that tells us we are looking at a tree.


Phonemic Awareness: What Is It?

Phonemic awareness is a fundamental skill for reading and spelling. Broadly speaking, phonemic awareness is the ability to segment, blend and manipulate phonemes. For example, splitting the word bug into its three phonemes b-u-g requires phonemic awareness.

As fluent readers, we tend to overlook how we’ve learned to segment sounds for spelling and blend them for reading because we’ve been doing these activities for so long they’ve become second nature. Largely, we do not remember how we ever came to learn how to read or spell.

As readers of an alphabetic language, our brains have been trained to complete segmentation and blending activities from an early age (ideally). In contrast, readers of a pictographic/ideographic writing system do not depend on phonemic awareness to read. Therefore, pictographic/ideographic readers never develop the same degree of phonemic awareness as readers of an alphabetic language. They develop other language skills unique to pictographic/ideographic deciphering, but phonemic awareness is not a fundamental skill in their tool bag for reading.

Whereas pictographic/ideographic readers decode using a one-to-one correspondence between each symbol and word, readers of an alphabetic language decode multiple phonemes and must blend them to create a word. Each phoneme must be isolated for spelling and blended together to decipher meaning for reading. These are not skills humans learn automatically. They must be practiced and mastered through phonemic awareness activities.


How Accuracy Determines Text Appropriateness

I advocate that students balance reading fiction with nonfiction texts, so they can develop vocabulary in content-area courses. Picking a text for a student may pose a challenge to adults, since many adults are not sure what texts will engage their student and simultaneously develop their student’s reading skills. Many students read texts at home that are significantly below or above their current reading level. While there may not be an inherent problem in students reading texts that are easy for them for leisure or difficult for them for an occasional challenge, students also need to be reading texts at their current reading level to continue to develop vocabulary, automaticity, fluency and reading comprehension skills.

How do educators and parents find texts at a student’s current reading level? Accuracy.

Accuracy can be defined as the percentage of words a student reads correctly on a given text. For example, if Jill read 86 out of 100 words correct on an excerpt from her science reading, her accuracy would be 86%. Since we don’t read in 100 word increments and the math isn’t always as intuitive as in Jill’s case, we have a formula.


Time the student while they read a particular text for one minute. Count the total number of words in the passage the student read. Then count the number of words the student missed. Subtract the total number of words from the total number of words missed. Divide the result by the total number of words. For example:

119- # of words

8- # of words missed

119-8= 111

111/119= .932

This reader has an accuracy rate of 93%. Determining the student’s accuracy on a particular text can help educators and parents decide how the text can best be used. Here are some guidelines:

IF ACCURACY IS 98% OR ABOVE…the text can be used for independent reading. The student is familiar with almost all of the words in the text, but they still come across unfamiliar words on occasion.

IF ACCURACY IS 94-97%… the text can be read with a reading tutor. The more experience reader can guide the student through miscues and unfamiliar words and concepts.

IF ACCURACY IS BELOW 94%…the student is experiencing frustration and should not be reading this text at all. If they are constantly reading below this threshold, the student will begin to think that reading is a frustrating activity and they’ll begin to hate it.


How to Improve Fluency

Many parents notice that their K-5 student is reading slowly. Some have concerns that their student is behind in terms of fluency and want suggestions on how to improve reading speed.

Unfortunately, there is no quick way to get a student to improve on fluency. Instead, fluency is a skill that develops over time by reading a lot. Fluency is also contingent on the particular student’s abilities—some students read faster earlier, while others read slower for longer. There is little parents and teachers can do to improve a student’s fluency besides having the student read a lot at home. Here are some suggested activities to improve a student’s fluency:

HAVE THE STUDENT READ SILENTLY (AND A LOT)- Acquiring fluency is a slow process, but the fastest way to develop fluency is to read extensively. Sometimes students struggle to read fast because they are encountering a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary in a particular text. Establishmentarianism- did this word make you slow down? Even experienced readers slow down when they come across a word they rarely see in texts. Try imagining how many unfamiliar words K-5 students come across everyday. A lot! “Government” may be a breeze to us, but to a second grader it’s out of left field. They have to read a lot to build a larger vocabulary and thereafter their fluency will improve.

HAVE THE STUDENT READ OUT LOUD WITH A PARTNER- In this situation a fluent reader (a parent, grandparent, older sibling or tutor) is paired with a student who is having difficulty. They can read the passage together in unison or take turns. Do not do repeat readings. Although the student may appear to be getting faster after repeated readings, they are not improving fluency. They are (whether they are aware of it or not) simply memorizing the passage—this is a big waste of time if fluency is the goal. In this activity, the fluent reader and the student read texts that have not been memorized by the student.

HAVE THE STUDENT FOLLOW ALONG WITH AN AUDIO BOOK- Technology can be a fantastic resource for busy parents who may not want to tire their vocal chords after a long day of work. The student can follow along with a tape recorded by a fluent reader. Give them a hardcopy of the book (this can be in any format—on a kindle or regular book), play the audio book and have the student follow along.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, READ TO YOUR CHILD- Reading to your child can help them build their vocabulary and fluency. Enjoying a story together, discussing it, laughing together at the silly pictures and happenings can also be a fun way to bond with your child at the end of the day.

Academic Language and Vocabulary Development

Even though many schools are incorporating decoding strategies into lessons, the fourth grade slump is still a rampant problem. For those unfamiliar with the fourth grade slump, the “slump” describes a period, usually in the fourth grade, in which reading scores drop dramatically. The drop is particularly a problem amongst low-income students. We know now that the fourth grade slump can be attributed to lack of vocabulary development. Whereas students in middle class homes typically have parents that read out-loud to them, have books in the home, and have parents that are themselves good readers, students in low-income homes have none of these benefits. The vocabulary skills of low-income students suffer because they don’t have access to the same materials and environment. We know that the fourth grade slump can be attributed to lack of vocabulary development because tests in the earlier grades focus on decoding, and tests beginning in the fourth grade focus heavily on vocabulary. So the question arises- how does one develop vocabulary skills?

We all are probably familiar with the English teacher who gives us 10 words per week to memorize. However, studies show that the typical student can only learn 4-8 words per week. We may be able to memorize 10 words per week, but a few weeks later those 10 words have vanished from our memories. If we learn 4-8 words per week, those words are more likely to remain in our long-term memories. Despite the fact that we’ve all probably been taught to use flashcards or pick a certain amount of words to learn each week, this method is largely tedious, slow and ineffective. What, then is the best way to improve one’s vocabulary? This question is pertinent to K-6 readers, adult learners as well as ESL students.

The key to improving vocabulary skills is not to teach new words, but to improve the rate at which a student acquires vocabulary. Learning 10 words per week is stagnant in terms of rate. In contrast, learning 4 new words one week, 8 the next, 12 the next and so on is an example of improving one’s rate of vocabulary development. Studies show that the best way to improve one’s rate, and thus improve one’s vocabulary, is to read A LOT. Let me provide you with some numbers to demonstrate how reading a lot is a critical component of vocabulary development. If someone were to read 0 minutes per day, they would read 0 words per year. If they read 0 words per year, they would acquire 0 new words per year through reading. If someone were to read 10 minutes per day, they would read 620,000 words per year. If someone read 15 minutes per day, they would read 1,000,000 words per year. If someone read 60 minutes per day, they would read 4,000,000 words per year. The amount of words read per year directly correlates with how strong that student’s vocabulary skills are. Reading a lot increases exposure to new words, and thus, increases vocabulary. The amount of words read per year is, of course, dependent on fluency, but the fact remains that the more words read, the greater one’s vocabulary is. In conclusion, to improve one’s vocabulary read, read and read. Set a goal to read an hour a day. You will read 4 million more words per year than someone who doesn’t read at all. Read texts outside of fiction to increase your vocabulary skills in content-area subjects. If you’re interested in learning about personal finance, read personal finance books– at first this may be challenging but as you build a vocabulary around financial matters, reading about finance will become much easier. If your child lacks knowledge of history, read history books to your child. Expose him/her to history vocabulary words, and eventually, once your child builds a vocabulary in history, he/she may even enjoy reading about history. Try to set a goal for you or your child to read a certain amount of minutes everyday. Pick texts that aren’t frustrating, but aren’t easy either. In sum, read A LOT.

About Brittany Marker (neé De Avilan) : Berkeley CA Tutor

Brittany Marker Berkeley CA TutorBrittany Marker (née De Avilan) has a passion for tutoring. She loves watching students learn to love reading and writing, feel more confident in their academic skills, and become model students in their classes.

Brittany graduated from the University of California, Berkeley where she received her B.A. in English. She received her M.A. in English Composition from Sacramento State along with a Certificate in Teaching Reading. Brittany tutors students in reading, phonics and writing. Brittany lives in Berkeley, CA and tutors throughout the East Bay area.