In anticipation of the latest PISA report, we decided to explore the definition of functional literacy and analyze its social impact
Days before the latest PISA report is due, we tackle what functional literacy actually is.
We should first make an important distinction – functional literacy is not the same as basic literacy. Basic literacy refers to the basic ability to read and write. It serves as the basis for further development. Without this further development, however, basic literacy proves to be insufficient in today’s highly competitive and demanding world.
Functional literacy is a set of skills and competencies which allow people to function and thrive in modern-day society.
To function and thrive in modern-day society practically means:
- Making informed choices about your own health (e.g., reading a drug label and finding out about any side-effects you might experience after taking the drug);
- Knowing your rights and responsibilities as a citizen and consumer (e.g., understanding the clauses in your employment contract, figuring out what to do when you get a ticket by the traffic police, or making an informed vote);
- Thinking critically when presented with new information (e.g., distinguishing between facts and opinions in advertising, social media, or news websites; using a transit map, etc.);
- Personal and professional growth (e.g., making the connection between cause and effect, analyzing information, managing your personal finances, being creative, setting and achieving your own goals).
This is exactly what the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, a.k.a. PISA, measures – the extent to which students have developed the skills to extract, analyze, process, and present information and the ability to apply problem-solving skills in everyday situations. PISA’s take on literacy goes beyond subject matter knowledge. PISA is an assessment of students’ ability to apply theoretical knowledge in everyday situations, draw interdisciplinary connections, and problem-solve. This is why it is crucial for any educator, regardless of what they teach, to develop their students’ functional literacy.
PISA warns us that the set of competencies young people master at school affects their future cognitive development and even whether they end up becoming functional members of society. Studies have shown a connection between functional literacy levels and the number of people who are not in education, employment, or training.
PISA measures students’ functional literacy in three fields: reading, mathematics, and science. This allows researchers to measure a variety of skills every three years and get a wider picture of the state of formal education and the way it equips young people for real life.
The focus of the latest report, which is due on Dec 3, is reading literacy.
Write an #ESSAY or What Reading Literacy Is All About
Do you remember the recent headline Write an Essay, Win This House? The catchy headline turned into a funny joke for some people and a stark example of reading illiteracy for others.
PISA defines reading literacy as the ability to extract the relevant information from texts and also to understand, use and reflect on written texts.
Or in the case of Write an Essay, Win This House people had to figure out that they were supposed to click on the link to open the publication, read the article to find out that they had to write an entire essay stating their motivation to win the house, read the instructions on how to enter the competition and how the winner would be selected. What they did instead was to comment under the facebook publication with one single word – “essay”.
The definition of functional literacy is about understanding, application, and analysis of written texts in order for people to accomplish specific goals, meet concrete needs, gain knowledge, grow personally and professionally, and be active members of society.
The concepts of understanding, application, and analysis reflect the main operations of reading and gaining knowledge through reading.
Or in our specific case study:
- Understanding refers to the readers’ ability to grasp the meaning of the text – what is the story of the house, why would the owners organize such an unusual competition, etc.;
- Application refers to their ability to use the information and ideas from the text to execute the specific task of writing an essay to enter the competition;
- Analysis would be the readers’ ability to relate the information they extract to their personal experience: “Would I be able to write this essay in Bulgarian or in English? Where can I find the right address? Do I even stand a chance to win?”
The term “reading literacy” as used in PISA includes a wide range of cognitive competencies – basic decoding, extracting and selecting information from a variety of sources which reflect real-life communicative situations (many of the texts test children’s media literacy or the way they process information from different media sources).
Find out more about PISA.
Read the story of a P.E. teacher who has come up with ways to develop her students’ reading literacy skills in the gym. We will be sharing more tried and true strategies about reading literacy development next week.