How To Recognize A Functionally Illiterate Person?

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Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems

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Before speaking, consider the interpretation of your words as well as their intent.
– Andrew Alden

Much of the conflict, discontent and hurt in the world began as a result of misinterpreted words of others.

Of course Adolf Hitler intended to take over the world when he prepared for war in the late 1930s. But British Prime Minister Chamberlain believed that he had “peace in our time” when he returned from Germany in 1938 with an agreement with Hitler that Germany would not wage war. Chamberlain deceived himself, we now believe.

But Hitler misinterpreted the consoling and compromising words of Chamberlain as well. He thought the UK would be an easy target, that it would not resist him. He was very wrong as at one point Britain almost alone stood in opposition to Hitler’s juggernaut.

People tend to misinterpret written words more than spoken ones. Some say it’s because written words do not come with facial expression and body language as spoken words do. I disagree to a point.

In conversation we tend to lay out our thoughts in a fairly orderly fashion. If necessary we repeat them so that our listeners will fix our ideas in their minds. With the written word, the reader is alone. Too alone sometimes to grasp the intent of the writer even if the writer has expressed himself or herself well.

Each word has a meaning, usually more than one. Its position in a sentence determines which of its multiple meanings is intended so that a reader can understand a whole sentence. A paragraph combines several concepts or thoughts into a flow.

Often written language is more elevated than spoken language. That is, an adult speaking to another might be understood easily by an eight-year-old but the same adult might use words that are above the reading level of the child when writing a message. This often happens without thinking about it as almost everyone has written essays or papers for high school, college or university.

In addition to complexities of language and sequence of thought, we have a series of paragraphs in a written work that may lead to conclusions that must stand independently of each paragraph. Misinterpretation begins the first time a reader loses track of the overall intent or purpose of the written work and becomes fixed on one idea expressed in it.

An example of this happened not long ago in Turkey when the Pope quoted a passage in a document a church official had written over 600 years ago to show how the Church of Rome at that time hated Muslims. While the entire context of the Pope’s message was about reconciliation between the world’s two largest religious belief sets, some Muslims took the 600 year old quote out of context and repeated it to others as if today’s Pope had written them himself.

There is little doubt that militant Muslims spread the word quickly about how the Roman Catholic Pope had expressed his hatred of Muslims. But the original misinterpretation likely happened innocently enough, by someone who latched onto one thought (a 600 year old one) and neglected the whole concept of what the Pope was trying to say.

Some people, especially those who are functionally illiterate, may have trouble grasping the full meaning of written words. Statistics Canada, the agency that compiles statistics for the Canadian government, in 2002 published a document that said that two-thirds of retired Canadians were functionally illiterate and about 45 percent of pre-retirement Canadian adults were as well. Those Canadian statistics likely can be used for other G7 countries as well.

We have people who can’t read so well, even though they believe they can. They may read the newspaper, but never a book. They read the weather report on the Weather Channel, but they never read online news articles on web sites. If they read online news reports, they may not grasp the significance of how that item fits with others on the same topic so recent history has a fuller meaning for htem.

For these people (the Canadian report said that 94 percent of Canadian adults read fewer than three books in a year, many none at all), the spoken word is best. It allows for repeats, facial expression, body language and evaluation by the speaker about whether or not the listener has heard and understood.

Most of the comments made by readers following one of these articles shows that they have understood what I have intended for them. Some just don’t get it. They believe they are good readers because they have “read” all the words to the end of the article. When they latch onto one thing mentioned in an article and dwell on it to the exclusion of the main point of the article or the context in which it was placed, they are usually functionally illiterate.

It would serve us all well to understand that some people will misinterpret what we have written, so we should be prepared to back up what we write with spoken communication. It may be a choice of either explain better or fight.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how ordinary people can make a difference in the world to make it a more peaceful and safe place to live. That plan is there and it’s cheap to implement.
Learn more at http://billallin.com

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4 thoughts on “How To Recognize A Functionally Illiterate Person?

  1. Hello. I don’t know how that sentence at the top of your post ever got attached to my name, but that’s what happened, back at the dawn of the Web. It probably came from something I posted on the Well once. It reflects my long experience as a copy editor. I don’t think it’s a very well written sentence; had I known it would live so long I would have taken more care. But things could be worse. I am happy you took it seriously. It shows that some sentences are perfectly understandable even when they aren’t perfectly written.

  2. It is said that an illiterate person is a wasteland wher nothing flourish this saying stress the importance of educatoin unfortily there is a great number of illiterate people in morocco about 38./ in 2007,so what are the measure wiche we should take to solve this problem?

  3. Imane, the level of literacy is a reflection of the will of a large majority of the population of any country or culture. Only when a government considers it to their advantage to promote literacy (not just to talk about it) will the level of literacy rise.
    You need to get many of your people talking publicly about his issue. The more people talk about it, the more interest those in power will demonstrate.
    Those who control the money supply of a country control the level of literacy.

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