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.