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Functional Literacy and Early School Leaving

One of the consequences of early school leaving can be that young people leave school without functional literacy. In this blog post David Mallows examines what that means and why it is significant.

Functional Illiteracy

One of the consequences of early school leaving can be that young people leave school without functional literacy. In this blog post David Mallows examines what that means and why it is significant.


This month EPALE is focusing on early school leaving. Much of the discussion will likely concern the reasons why so many young people do not complete their upper secondary schooling. However, in this blog post I do not want to talk about the causes of early school leaving or to discuss possible strategies that schools could adopt to reduce the number of children who do not complete their education. This is EPALE and so my focus is not on children in schools, but on the young people who emerge from our schools to take their place in adult society and the likely consequences of early school leaving for them, and for adult education.

Functional literacy is contextual

Many young people leave school before they have developed the literacy skills they require to participate fully in society. Functional illiteracy, unlike illiteracy, can be hard to spot. Decoding and reading aloud the text can be so mentally demanding on the individual, that he or she has no spare capacity to access the meaning of the text. So, someone may well be able to read a text aloud, but still be unable to understand what they have read and extract meaning from it. This means that those who are not functionally literate can often be quite invisible in our societies. They often manage to do this and sometimes even prosper, but their poor reading and writing means that there are limits to their engagement with the world around them.

It is important to distinguish here between illiteracy – not being able to read and write at all, and functional literacy – being able to read and write, but not well enough to meet the demands of everyday life. UNESCO deems a person as functionally literate if they can ‘engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his or her group and community and also for enabling him or her to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his or her own and the community’s development’. Within this definition there is a recognition that literacy is not a universal set of skills independent of the social context of use. Instead literacy is highly contextual – the reading and writing that we are required (or would desire) to do depends on our social and professional environment. An adult can only be deemed functionally illiterate if they cannot meet the demands placed on them in their own particular social and professional context. Of course, the demands placed on adults change continually – just because someone was once functionally literate does not mean that they will be able to adapt to new and different demands and remain functionally literate.

Changing demands on literacy

When we talk about early school leavers we are referring to young people beyond compulsory schooling age who have not completed upper secondary education. For many adults in Europe forms of second chance education are made available to compensate for their early school leaving. Such programmes allow them to address their literacy skills and gain equivalent qualifications to those that they missed out on. However, the reality in most European countries is that most of these people probably discontinued their education many years ago and so not only will school qualifications be of little relevance to them now, but the demands on their literacy may also be very different from those demanded of children in school.

Functionally illiterate adults are likely to have strategies that allow them to cope in their everyday life. These may be strategies of avoidance in which the adult finds a way not to engage with written text (“I’m afraid that I’ve forgotten my glasses”). They are likely to do this in order to ensure that they do not have to admit that they are struggling to comprehend the meaning and respond appropriately. Functionally illiterate adults may also have strategies of collaboration with others. In the latter case the functionally illiterate adult may offer other skills in exchange for support with literacy (“You fill in the form and I’ll unload the van”).

As stated above, this is a blog about early school leaving from the adult perspective, thinking of adults who left school early and, as a consequence, now lack the skills and knowledge that are demanded of them. However, we should not forget that functional illiteracy is not only a consequence of early school leaving; it is quite often the main cause. Most educational systems simply assume that children have attained a degree of functional literacy once the standard period for initial literacy learning has been completed. There is a need for schools to continue to focus on literacy beyond the period of initial learning. The literacy demands placed on pupils by the different subjects that they are taught are often complex and for those struggling to achieve, difficult to comprehend and meet. We should work to ensure that all children attain a functional literacy level by the time they leave compulsory schooling.

Adult education and functional literacy

So, in terms of adult education, when we discover that a potential learner left school early, this should prompt us to look carefully at their literacy, firstly by understanding what it is that they are required to do with their literacy, but equally importantly by exploring with them what it is that they would like to be able to do. In which domains they need to be functionally literate, and in which domains they would like to be functionally literate. Some early school leavers can prosper as adults, going on to be successful in their chosen fields and acquiring as adults the literacy skills that they need. However, for others poor literacy may be a major barrier to them meeting their true potential, and so engagement with adult education may be necessary.

David Mallows has 30 years of experience in adult education as a teacher, teacher trainer, manager and researcher. He was previously Director of Research at the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (NRDC) at the UCL Institute of Education, London and currently represents the European Basic Skills Network in EPALE as thematic coordinator for Life Skills.

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