Functional illiteracy is a problem that is often hidden, the more so in industrialised countries where it stands as a living scar with respect to schooling systems which were designed to avoid such situations. That is why I thought it would be interesting to share with you the study that the French National Agency against Functional Illiteracy (ANLCI) has published. In France, functional illiteracy or illettrisme, applies to someone who has been to school until the legal age of 16 and who doesn’t have a sufficient level of reading, writing and basic numerical skills to be self-supporting in every day life situations. The word illettrisme was first coined by the founder of ATD Quart Monde, Joseph Wresinski. The ANLCI makes the distinction between illettrisme and analphabetism which concerns people who have never been to school and French as a foreign language for people who arrive in France not knowing how to speak French. The study was conducted in 2004-2005 on a population panel of ten thousand people aged 18 to 65 living in Metropolitan France. Here are the main findings:

  • 9% of the population aged 18 to 65 living in France and having received schooling in France are in situation of functional illiteracy. That is 3,100,000 people.
  • Of these 3,100,000 people, over half are aged 45+.
  • The proportion of people who are functionally illiterate is highest amongst the age bracket 56 to 65 (14% vs the overall percentage of 9).
  • Men are more prone than women to be functionally illiterate : 59% vs 41% for women.
  • Functional illiteracy is equally present in rural and urban areas.
  • Over half of the people (57%) who are functionally illiterate have a job. That represents 1.8 million people. The unemployed have a 15% rate of functional illiteracy.
  • 74% of the people with functional illiteracy only spoke French at home as of age 5.

Several comments on these results. It is often thought that functional illiteracy affects younger generations but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Another element which is surprising is the very high rate amongst employed people. Also, policies to help decrease the rate of illiteracy have to be evenly spread between rural and urban areas.