Sunday, March 26, 2017

Literacy as art: What is "functional literacy”?

What does it mean to be literate?  It seems like a simple question, but answering it is more complicated than meets the eye.

Literacy is usually defined as the ability to readwrite, and do math.  But what do we mean by reading?  Someone may be able to read the words in a document, but can they comprehend its arguments and analogies?  How about writing?  People may be able to write individual words, but can they express complete thoughts in grammatical sentences?  Then there’s math.  Some individuals may be able to count numbers, but do they know how to analyze graphs, write checks, or calculates tips?

Dilbert by Scott Adams, 9-9-2011

In short, reading or writing words and numbers is not enough to assess literacy.  People need to be able to understand and use those words and numbers—e.g., to express meaning and to solve problems.  This broader definition of literacy is called functional literacy.

Functional literacy refers to the practical skill set you need to read, write, and do math for real-life purposes, including personal or community development.  This definition comes from the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, an international agency that researches education, science, and communication.  In the U.S., functional literacy is assessed by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).

The NAAL is put together every few years by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a research division of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in the Department of Education.  This research classifies literacy according to four levels:

1) Below Basic Literacy: reading and writing words and numbers in a very simple document.
  • Examples: locating easily identifiable information on a chart; signing a form; adding a dollar amount to a deposit slip.
2) Basic Literacy: performing simple skills to understand information in short texts.
  • Examples: reading a pamphlet; using a TV guide; comparing ticket prices.
3) Intermediate Literacy: performing challenging skills to understand long texts.
  • Examples: looking up information in a reference book; summarizing a long article; placing an order and calculating the cost.
4) Proficient Literacy: performing creative and critical thinking skills to understand dense, complex texts.
  • Examples: comparing viewpoints in editorials; interpreting statistical graphs; calculating the costs of food items per ounce.

You may have noticed that as we advance from Below Basic to Basic and beyond, we go from simple tasks to complex skills.  That's because literacy is a skill.  The ancient word for skillas I’ve pointed out in a previous post, is art.  Art, according to its Greek and Latin roots (techne/ars), means skill.  In this sense, literacy—or functional literacy—is the art of reading, writing, and working with numbers, especially to perform skills that are essential for functioning in the world.

So how functionally literate is the U.S.?  Here are the results from the last NAAL.  Warning: these numbers have alarmed many educators.  (In fact, one of my colleagues in education has worried that our nation has passed a point of "peak literacy.")

(Image from NAAL) 

14% of the U.S. population, or 1 out of every 7 people, are functionally illiterate, performing at a Below Basic level.  87% of people performed below Proficient levels.  Why are these numbers alarming?

Well, there's the obvious point that businesspeople such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs made.  The 21st-century economy needs highly skilled workers with knowledge in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), or, better yet, STEAM (same subjects plus Arts).

Functional literacy, however, is about much more than getting a job.  It's also about preserving knowledge and skills needed for our society to function.  If we don't have individuals with mathematical knowledge, creative reading and writing skills, critical thinking habits, etc., then we won't have functioning businesses, governments, or communities.  In other words, we need functional literacy to have a functional society.  Functional illiteracy means living in a dysfunctional society, like in the movie Idiocracy.

With these definitions and stats in mind, I'll explain what kinds of functional literacies are needed to avoid this problem in the next post.