Functional Literacy: Essential For Inclusive And Informed Society – OpEd


Functional literacy is the ability to read, write, and comprehend written information in a way that allows individuals to effectively participate in various activities and functions in their daily lives. It goes beyond just being able to read and write words; it encompasses the capacity to understand and use information from various texts, such as newspapers, instructions, job applications, medicine labels, contracts, and more.

Functional literacy enables individuals to:

a. Navigate the modern world: People with functional literacy can effectively engage with information presented in various formats, including digital media, printed materials, and online content. 

b. Access information: It allows individuals to access and understand important information, whether it’s related to education, health, employment, legal matters, or personal interests.

c. Make informed decisions: Literacy empowers individuals to evaluate and analyze information critically, enabling them to make informed choices and decisions.

d. Engage in the workforce: Functional literacy is crucial for obtaining and maintaining employment, as it enables individuals to understand job-related documents and communicate effectively with colleagues and superiors.

e. Participate in civic activities: Literate individuals can engage in civic and community affairs, such as voting, understanding public policies, and participating in discussions about societal issues.

f. Functional literacy is not an all-or-nothing skill; it exists on a spectrum. Some people may have basic functional literacy, while others may possess advanced literacy skills. Efforts to improve functional literacy can involve educational programs, community initiatives, and policy changes to address barriers to literacy and provide support to those in need. 

Origin of functional literacy

The concept of functional literacy has its roots in the broader historical development of literacy and education. The term “functional literacy” emerged in the mid-20th century and gained prominence as a result of the UNESCO-sponsored “Functional Literacy and Mass Education” (FLAME) program launched in 1961.

Before the 20th century, literacy was often associated with basic reading and writing skills necessary for religious or administrative purposes. In ancient civilizations, literacy was primarily the domain of the elite, religious scholars, and scribes who needed to handle administrative tasks. The expansion of literacy began to take shape during the Enlightenment in Europe (17th to 18th centuries), where the ideas of education and knowledge for all started to gain traction. Formal education systems started to emerge, and literacy became more accessible to a broader segment of the population.

However, functional literacy, as we understand it today, became a pressing issue during the industrialization and urbanization of the 19th and 20th centuries. With the rise of industrial societies, the demands for literacy expanded beyond basic reading and writing skills. Industrialization required a more educated and skilled workforce capable of handling complex tasks, following written instructions, and participating in the economic and social life of the modern world.

The UNESCO FLAME program, launched in the 1960s, played a significant role in highlighting the importance of functional literacy in developing countries. The program aimed to address the issue of illiteracy and promote education that is not just about learning to read and write, but also about applying those skills in real-life situations. The focus on functional literacy emphasized the importance of education that was relevant to the needs of individuals and communities, enabling them to participate actively in society, make informed decisions, and improve their quality of life

Benefits of functional literacy

Functional literacy offers a wide range of benefits to individuals, communities, and societies as a whole which include:

a. Empowerment and Self-Confidence: Functional literacy empowers individuals by giving them the ability to access information and knowledge independently. This, in turn, boosts their self-confidence and sense of autonomy.

b. Enhanced Communication: Literate individuals can communicate more effectively through reading, writing, and understanding language. This leads to better interpersonal relationships and improved social interactions.

c. Access to Education and Knowledge: Functional literacy is a foundation for further education. It allows individuals to continue learning throughout their lives, accessing a vast array of educational resources.

d. Improved Employment Opportunities: Literacy is crucial in the modern job market. Functional literacy opens up more employment opportunities and provides individuals with a higher chance of securing and retaining jobs.

e. Economic Growth and Development: A literate workforce contributes to economic development. Functionally literate individuals are more likely to be productive, innovative, and entrepreneurial.

f. Health and Well-Being: Functional literacy is linked to better health outcomes. It enables individuals to understand health information, make informed decisions about their well-being, and access healthcare services effectively.

g. Informed Citizenship: Literate individuals can engage in civic activities, participate in democratic processes, and understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

h. Poverty Reduction: Functional literacy is a crucial tool in breaking the cycle of poverty. It enables individuals to pursue better opportunities, earn higher incomes, and improve their overall quality of life.

i. Personal Development: Reading and writing expand an individual’s horizons and intellectual capacity. It allows for personal growth, creativity, and critical thinking.

j. Cultural Preservation: Literacy plays a significant role in preserving and passing down cultural heritage and traditions through the written word.

k. Digital Literacy: In the digital age, functional literacy extends to digital literacy, enabling individuals to navigate and utilize digital technologies effectively.

l. Social Cohesion: Functional literacy fosters social cohesion by creating a shared understanding and knowledge base within a community. 

Difference between literacy and functional literacy

The main difference between literacy and functional literacy lies in the scope and application of the skills. Literacy refers to the ability to read and write. It indicates a basic level of proficiency in reading and writing letters, words, and simple sentences. A literate person can identify and understand written symbols, recognize individual letters, and may be able to form simple words and sentences. It is often considered a fundamental skill and a stepping stone to further education and intellectual development.

On the other hand, functional literacy, goes beyond the basic ability to read and write. It emphasizes the application of literacy skills in real-life situations to understand and effectively interact with written information. A functionally literate person can not only read and write but also comprehend and use written information in various contexts, such as understanding instructions, completing forms, interpreting documents, and engaging with different types of texts.

Functional literacy is about being able to apply reading and writing skills in practical, meaningful ways that enable individuals to function effectively in society and meet the demands of everyday life. In summary, literacy refers to the foundational ability to read and write, whereas functional literacy includes the practical application of those skills to navigate and participate effectively in various aspects of daily life.

Dr. Rajkumar Singh

Dr. Rajkumar Singh is a University Professor for the last 20 years and presently Head of the P.G. Department of Political Science, B.N. Mandal University, West Campus, P.G. Centre,Saharsa (Bihar), India. In addition to 17 books published so far there are over 250 articles to his credit out of which above 100 are from 30 foreign countries. His recent published books include Transformation of modern Pak Society-Foundation, Militarisation, Islamisation and Terrorism (Germany, 2017),and New Surroundings of Pak Nuclear Bomb (Mauritius, 2018). He is an authority on Indian Politics and its relations with foreign countries.

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