There is a serious problem with America’s abysmal literacy rates. Yes, literacy in children and adolescents in America is stagnant, but there is a bigger issue:  functionally illiterate adults.

Defining The Problem

There is a difference between functional literacy and normal literacy. The type of illiteracy that you’d expect to hear about in places without access to education is “normal literacy.” This refers to “the ability to understand, evaluate, use, and engage with written texts to participate in society, achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

That is not the same as functional literacy. Functional illiteracy is defined as when “a person cannot use reading, writing, and calculation skills for his/her own and the community’s development.” Someone who is functionally illiterate can technically read, but cannot use reading skills to his or her, or the community’s, advantage.

According to The Atlantic, cognitive scientists have been aware of America’s functional illiteracy problems for decades. They have also known that teaching comprehension skills alone has actually helped to further this crisis. Students are not able to apply what they’ve read to the comprehension checks given by standardized testing.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem surrounding functional literacy is that it is most prevalent in lower income areas. A formal education is incredibly difficult to come by for these individuals. Though not impossible (there are many inspiring stories of those who have picked themselves up by their bootstraps), socio-economic, racial, and even gender issues have made it difficult to overcome this problem.

Teaching in New Ways

The best way to overcome functional illiteracy is by switching focus from being able to read to being able to understand. Learning how to find main ideas in a conglomerate of unrelated texts required by government standardized testing is one thing. Learning background information and vocabulary in a logical and repetitive way is another.

Many classical schools set themselves up in this way. For example, the Cambridge School in San Diego, CA is split into the grammar stage (K-6th grade), the logic stage (grades 7 and 8), and the rhetoric stage (9 through 12). This system helps separate the process of learning to read from learning to understand and question. Ultimately, this also helps teach students how to create constructive dialogue.

In the meantime, however, studies are finding that the gap is still widening. America’s public school system–frequently the only education option for low-income students–is not equipped to accommodate or address functional illiteracy. This is unfortunate, because best hope for the functionally illiterate are the educators helping address this problem.