The
Challenge

Causes of Low Literacy 

Low Literacy in individuals stems from different, generally inter-related causes which, together, create a series of often insurmountable barriers for those concerned. Some of the causes of low literacy in adults are:

  • Undiagnosed learning disabilities
  • Hearing or vision loss
  • Lack of a role model, i.e. no one in the family or household stresses reading or education
  • Poverty or a focus on survival needs rather than education
  • Violence in the community or fear of violence, causing a student to miss large amounts of school
  • Moving from one school to another throughout childhood, so that education didn’t make sense and didn’t fit together
  • Leaving school at a young age to care for a sick or dying family member
  • Leaving school at a young age to provide income for the family
  • Living in a refugee camp where education was minimal or not available
  • Being a foreigner and needing to learn English as a second language

Consequences of Low Literacy 

The consequences of low literacy are many. It negatively affects individuals in their daily lives and can jeopardize their future. The issue also has a significant effect on society, both socially and economically.

For individuals

  • Limited ability to obtain and understand essential information
  • Unemployment: The unemployment rate is 2–4 times higher among those with little schooling than among those with bachelor’s degrees
  • Low-literate adults who are employed often turn down promotions or advancement opportunities because they fear the paperwork that will be required
  • Lower income
  • Lower-quality jobs
  • Reduced access to lifelong learning and professional development
  • Precarious financial position
  • Little value is given to education and reading within the family, and this often leads to intergenerational transmission of low literacy
  • Low self-esteem, which can lead to isolation
  • Impact on health: low literacy individuals have more workplace accidents, take longer to recover and more often misuse medication through ignorance of health care resources and because they have trouble reading and understanding the relevant information (warnings, dosage, contraindications, etc.)

For society

  • Since literacy is an essential tool for individuals and states to be competitive in the new global knowledge economy, many positions remain vacant for lack of personnel adequately trained to hold them
  • The higher the proportion of adults with low literacy proficiency is, the slower the overall long-term GDP growth rate is
  • The difficulty understanding societal issues lowers the level of community involvement and civic participation
  • Additional costs to taxpayers due to increased unemployment compensation and welfare payments

Barriers to Getting Help

Despite the numerous advantages associated with undertaking literacy or basic training, low literacy individuals face barriers that often prevent them from moving ahead.

  • Family constraints and imperatives
  • Individuals’ own disposition, in line with past learning experiences (e.g., doing badly at school)
  • Pessimistic outlook and low self-esteem
  • Lack of confidence in their ability to learn
  • Lack of money (precarious situation, barely enough money for basic needs)
  • Schedule conflict with paid job
  • Distance from training site
  • Concerns with the program itself: duration, level of difficulty, anxiety about being able to work at their own pace and relevance of content offered
  • Difficulty dealing with change
  • Shame at having their problem revealed to others

Benefits of Literacy Efforts

Everyone has to work together to defeat low literacy and its impact. Without the participation of individuals, community organizations, business and government, the situation will never be turned around.

  • Give young people from underprivileged backgrounds the means to study
  • Better job opportunities (prerequisite for access to lifelong learning)
  • Greater effectiveness at work
  • Greater competitiveness
  • More dynamic, enthusiastic workforce
  • Greater productivity
  • Stronger economy
  • Better occupational health and safety record
  • Higher retention levels (employees and clients)
  • Facilitate knowledge transfer from workers nearing retirement to employees of all ages
  • Raising workforce skill levels to foster employment
  • Adjustment and entry into employment
  • Impact on the shortage of manpower
  • Lever for economic growth

Adapted from the Literacy Foundation