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FUNCTIONAL LITERACY

FUNCTIONAL LITERACY. A term initially defined for UNESCO by William S. Gray (The Teaching of Reading and Writing, 1956, p. 21) as the training of adults to ‘meet independently the reading and writing demands placed on them’. Currently, the phrase describes those approaches to LITERACY which stress the acquisition of appropriate verbal, cognitive, and computational skills to accomplish practical ends in culturally specific settings. Although also labelled survival literacy and reductionist literacy because of its emphasis on minimal levels of competency and the preparation of workers for jobs, functional literacy is defended by proponents as a way to help people negotiate successfully in their societies. The notion of literacy as a utilitarian tool arose in 1942 when the US Army had to defer 433,000 draftees because they could not understand ‘the kinds of written instruction … needed for carrying out basic military functions or tasks’. In 1947, the US Bureau of the Census began defining literacy quantitatively, describing anyone with less than five years' schooling as functionally illiterate. With the passing of the Adult Education Act of 1966, 12 years of education became the literacy standard in the US, while in Britain, the right-to-read movements of the 1970s characterized functional literacy as the ability to: (1) read well enough to perform job activities successfully, and (2) understand printed messages. Over the decades, as societies have developed both technical innovations and new language formats and tasks, the definition of functional literacy has been modified to meet the changed demands. See ILLITERACY.

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