Functional Illiteracy

What Is Functional Illiteracy?

Functional illiteracy means that while an individual can complete basic reading and writing, their reading, writing and math skills are insufficient to navigate workplace and societal expectations. Reading and writing are crucial skills for daily tasks such as reading road signs, filling out medical and governmental forms or completing job or housing applications. Adult illiteracy affects individuals, their families and their communities.

Literacy, in contrast, empowers children and adults to navigate their lives with ease and understanding. Yet, according to UNESCO, 773 million children and adults worldwide are illiterate.1 Illiteracy traps people in cycles of low-income jobs and poverty. So, what is illiteracy? Illiteracy is a barrier to hope.

What causes illiteracy?

Limited Education

Children who infrequently attend school or drop out entirely often continue the cycle of functional illiteracy and poverty. Education builds confidence in children and offers them opportunities to learn, grow and hope. Moreover, education gives children the tools to succeed in better-paying jobs, which offer opportunities for better health care and better housing. However, education is a luxury for some families worldwide.

Child Labor

School expenses may include transportation, uniforms, books and other supplies. The financial strain to feed, educate and care for their children can be too much for many families. Many impoverished parents must choose between sending their children to school and paying rent or feeding their families. Some families need their children to work alongside them in fields, factories or farms to supplement their income. However, long hours of hazardous work prevent children from consistently attending school or even completing their education. The International Labour Office estimates that 32 percent of child laborers no longer attend school.2

Limited Support

Some people are functionally illiterate even if they receive adequate schooling. Children may inconsistently attend school due to personal illness or injury, their families moving or even child labor. Children also may not consistently go to school because their parents do not value education.

Parents with limited or no school background are less likely to value education and send their children to school. Undereducated parents cannot help their children read, write or complete their homework. Without an incentive to attend school, children will often find other ways to spend their time. Children that inconsistently attend school can easily fall behind on obtaining core relational and educational skills.

Gender Inequality

Girls face additional barriers to education and functional literacy. UNICEF estimates that 129 million girls worldwide are not in school.3 Some barriers girls experience in receiving an education include lack of menstruation education and products, societal biases, child marriage and gender-based violence. Girls may need additional support to attend school and build literacy.

What are the consequences of illiteracy?

  • Economic impact — Illiteracy can be a consequence of poverty, but it can also contribute to poverty. Without sufficient education, many adults are trapped in difficult, low-paying jobs and rely on their children or other adults to help them read, write and communicate. Undereducated adults are also less likely to value education and send their children to school, which contributes to the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty and illiteracy.
  • Social impact — Education and literacy create hope. Without functional reading, writing and math skills, it is difficult for most people to navigate society. Functional illiteracy can contribute to low self-esteem.
  • Medical impact — Illiterate people often lack information about proper health practices such as hand washing and health screenings. Many people with low literacy do not receive regular and appropriate medical care, either because they do not have enough information or do not have the financial resources to seek medical attention for illnesses or injuries.

How can you help combat illiteracy?

Illiteracy is an issue worldwide. However, regions like South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have concentrated populations of illiterate people. GFA World is working to combat the African and South Asia highest illiteracy rate through child sponsorship and adult literacy classes.

For decades, GFA World has provided programs in Asia to support families and encourage children to stay in school, which promotes greater literacy. Through child sponsorship, for example, children and their families receive help such as nutritious food, educational support, access to clean water, medical care and more. This support relieves the financial pressure from families so their children can be fed and remain in school. When children stay in school, they become literate, build confidence and have new opportunities to learn, grow and hope. Moreover, attending school offers children opportunities beyond the low-income jobs accessible to them without schooling.

Will you become a child sponsor? For $35 a month, you can help children, their families and their communities break the cycle of poverty. Through your sponsorship, children feel loved, wanted, hopeful and have the opportunity to experience God’s love firsthand.

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1 “Literacy.” UNESCO. Accessed 6 February 2022.
2 “Global Estimates of Child Labour.” International Labour Office. 2016.—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575499.pdf.
3 “Girl’s Education.” UNICEF. Accessed 22 January 2022.