In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Functional Literacy

  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Background
  • Journals
  • Assessment
  • National and International Assessments
  • Tools to Assess Skills of Populations
  • Literacy Practices
  • Adult and Child Literacy

Public Health Functional Literacy
John P. Comings
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0032


Literacy comprises a set of skills (usually listed as phonics, decoding, fluency, vocabulary knowledge, and comprehension) and a set of practices (employing all of these skills to accomplish tasks with text). The term “functional literacy” came into common use in the 1960s, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began addressing the lack of literacy skills among a large percentage of the population of adults and out-of-school children in developing countries. At the time, literacy experts were concerned that the teaching of literacy in developing countries was focused solely on skills and needed a greater focus on practices. This concern led to UNESCO’s emphasis on literacy being taught as a functional skill, and literacy instruction consistent with this approach was referred to as functional literacy. The term became associated with a definition of literacy as a functional skill. The field of public health is interested in functional literacy for two reasons. First, public health professionals are increasingly aware that low functional literacy is a barrier to health communications; and second, the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute for Child Health and Development now urges pediatricians to pay attention to the literacy development of their patients. This article identifies sources that help public health professionals understand functional literacy and approaches to assessing it from the point of view of literacy scholars, and this provides a foundation for understanding the use of this term in public health. It is important for public health professionals to understand how literacy is defined and measured, in particular because of a growing interest in health literacy.


The term “functional literacy” is used in three different contexts: international discussions, adult literacy, and general education. Though the definitions are similar, each might be more appropriate for a specific public health purpose. UNESCO defines it as the level of skill needed to function fully in society in international discussions. Jarvis 1999 defines it the same way for adult education settings. Collins and O’Brien 2003 provides the same definition but offers an alternative that sees functional literacy as the minimum needed to meet personal and social needs in general education. Guzzetti, et al. 2002 provides a short history of the development of the term.

  • Collins, John W., III, and Nancy Patricia O’Brien, eds. 2003. The Greenwood dictionary of education. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    The definition on p. 148 is also drawn from that of the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, but this source is more commonly used in the general education literature. In addition, this source offers an alternative definition of functional literacy as a minimum level of skill.

  • Guzzetti, Barbara J., Donna E. Alvermann, and Jerry L. Johns, eds. 2002. Literacy in America: An encyclopedia of history, theory, and practice. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

    Under the heading “Adult Literacy” on p. 19, this source provides a history of the development of the definition of functional literacy, from its first use in the 1940 US Census through its use as a measurement objective in the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey.

  • Jarvis, Peter. 1999. International dictionary of adult and continuing education. 2d ed. London: Kogan Page.

    The definition on p. 75 of this dictionary is drawn from that of the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, but this source is more commonly used in the literature of adult education. In addition, this definition is more concise.

  • UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Functional Literacy.

    The definition employed by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics sees functional literacy as a level of reading, writing, and calculation skills sufficient to function in the particular community in which an individual lives. The UNESCO definition is useful in international discussions of functional literacy.

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