Cover Image
close this bookFunctional Literacy, Workplace Literacy and Technical and Vocational Education: Interfaces and Policy Perspectives - Studies No. 5 (UNEVOC, 1995, 66 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentFunctional literacy or work-oriented literacy
View the documentWorkplace literacy: Functional literacy by another name?
View the documentTechnical and vocational education and training
View the documentPolicy perspectives on education and training for work: within the framework of the present world order
View the documentNotes and bibliography


In attending to the trees, one can sometimes lose sense of the forest. The same is true in the conceptual space and in the programmatic terrain of education, development, and culture. In being overly preoccupied with conceptual categories at the micro level, or by being caught within the narrow confines of specific programmatic formats, one can fail to see the larger theoretical category underpinning the grand design of an educational or cultural movement.

The main subject of this paper is the macro-level cultural process of the intergenerational social reproduction of labor for the work of nations to get done, as peoples great and small live their lives. To achieve this social reproduction of labor, all societies develop suitable institutional arrangements for the delivery of "Education and Training for Work" (ETW). Educators around the world today can be seen to use four different institutional settings for the delivery of ETW: (a) formal setting, essentially, for youth, (b) alternative formal setting for working adults and other home-bound learners, (c) non-formal setting for adults (and sometimes for working youth and children of whom there are many in the developing world), and (d) informal setting wherein education and training is passed on unselfconsciously to others and can thus be equated with socialization.

Of the many possible programmatic formats of ETW which have been tried and tested around the world (and others that may be developed in the present or the future), we have chosen three programme formats: (i) Functional Literacy (FL), (ii) Workplace Literacy (WPL), and (iii) Technical & Vocational Education and Training. The choice is by no means idiosyncratic. The three programmes together constitute the bulk of ETW initiatives in almost every country on the globe.

Formal Technical and Vocational Education: preparation for work

Historically, technical and vocational education (we will deal with the training component separately), has been a part of the formal education system. It has been taught as a separate track or stream within the upper primary and/or secondary school, or delivered through separate technical and vocational schools. While general formal education is often justified as preparation for "life," technical and vocational education is justified as preparation for "work." The expectation is high that there will be a job waiting for graduates at the end of their preparation through technical and vocational education programmes.

Alternative Formal Setting: Promotion of work

Sometimes the formal curriculum of technical and vocational education taught in schools is delivered to adults already working in the economy in settings "alternative" to the school. The curriculum, the organization of the content, and the testing and evaluation procedures all remain exactly the same as those used in the formal setting but the curriculum may be offered to adults not in the school but perhaps on the factory floor or in the business premises, or through distance education. Such arrangements can be best labelled as "alternative formal" technical and vocational education. Their objective is not preparation for work, but can be better described as promotion of the work in which these learners are already engaged.

Non-formal ETW for adults: another setting for promotion at work

Both functional literacy and workplace literacy to be more fully discussed in later sections are examples of non-formal basic education and training for adults. Functional literacy is an educational policy response to development in the rural areas of the developing world. It seeks to bring to adult farmers, men and women bypassed by the school and the technical and vocational school, development-related knowledge, attitudes arid skills to enable them to grow more from their fields and to improve their lives in other ways. Workplace literacy was also a policy response to the educational and training needs of workers in business and industry who needed higher-level skills and higher-level literacy to function in the new technological environment of the workplace. In both cases, ETW was not merely preparation for work. It was educational and technical promotion of work being done by learners in the settings of farms and factories.

Informal ETW for youth and adults

In addition to the ETW offered in the three institutional settings detailed above, some ETW will continue to be offered informally within the social institution of the family, on the family farm or the family shop or foundry. There will be apprenticeships in family-like settings and there will be mentoring relationships between people learning from each other.

The print culture: the context of ETW today

The informal ETW and socialization of worker roles will for ever continue to be a mix of the verbal, visual, and written communication. In today's culture of print, however, it is now more and more the case that for effective delivery of ETW in various institutional settings, and for the performance of work afterwards, the printed word and therefore literacy of workers have come to be absolutely necessary.

Literacy agendas in a world of print

To understand the nature of literacy and the evolution of the manifold functions of literacy, it is important to begin with an understanding of speech - the human capacity to say words to signify and represent their world.

Nature and functions of speech, writing, and literacy

Speech was the first grand culmination of the uniquely human and the continuously evolving capacity to make symbolic transformations of reality (Langer, 1942). Speech enabled communication and communication enabled culture-making. Writing was the second culmination of the same human capacity to make symbolic transformations of reality, in the meaning that writing is the symbolic transformation of reality already symbolically transformed into speech.

If writing by one was not read with understanding by another, then writing would not be writing in the meaning of the term as we know it. Writing would have been scribbles on a surface - at the most, a private code developed as an aid to memory, or perhaps an expressive or cathartic act of an individual. For writing to be writing, the writing code developed by one had to be decoded by many others.

Thus, literacy as the ability to break the written code of a system of symbols had to be taught and learned, that is, people had to be made literate in a codified language. Literacy, by its very nature, being a tool of communication and culture-making, is thus inherently "functional."

Evolution of the functions of literacy

Literacy was indeed born with functionality already planted in its core. The first materialization of the inherent functionality of literacy (writing something meaningful and then reading it with comprehension) is said to have been as an "aid to memory" - record keeping by traders in Mesopotamia around 3100 B.C. But these aids to memory used by those early traders need not have been individual secrets. Most probably those were shared secrets and thus literacy was already a part of social processes.

Over some 5000 years of the development of writing in various cultures and communities around the world, literacy was given a wide variety of functions by priests, princes and other holders of power. They used literacy to propagate the faith, to organize armies, to build empires and to exercise power on a daily basis through organized bureaucracies doing their bidding.

The necessity of literacy in the print culture

With the introduction of the printing press in the late 15th century, it was possible to disseminate written materials among the new middle classes who, of course, needed to become literate to be able to reach the new treasures of knowledge and wisdom made possible by the printing press. Print capitalism was born, fuelled by the sale of books and newspapers. Together these developments gave us "imagined communities" rooted in ethnic loyalties and national identities (Anderson, 1991).

Today the world of print is global and all encompassing. While people still enjoy the modes, media and patterns inherited from oral cultures, there are no self-contained oral cultures left anywhere on the globe. All cultures have become print cultures, more or less. All modern institutions, both sacred and secular are premised today on literate governors, managers, and leaders - and the led. Literacy is woven in the woof and texture of societies, developed and developing, in all of the institutions of societies sacred and secular - economic, political, social, educational and cultural.

Thus literacy has acquired economic, political, cultural functionality and every other kind of functionality in between. In such a context to be illiterate is surely to be disadvantaged. On the other hand, to be literate is to acquire "added potential." Once literacy has been learned, the new literate wherever he or she lives and works, can use literacy in a variety of life's functions - from earning money to earning prestige, and dealing with economic, political, aesthetic, cultural and spiritual matters . The question today should not be whether literacy is functional or not. Literacy cannot but be functional. The right question today is: What aspects of the inherent functionality of literacy should be emphasized in literacy programmes at a particular historical time in a particular social-economic setting?

Literacy on UNESCO's agenda

The first World Conference of Adult Education organize by UNESCO in Elsinore, Denmark in 1949 proclaimed that UNESCO was in spirit indeed an institution of adult education. Since a large part of the world's population, especially in the colonized world, had been bypassed by the school systems, and had never learned to read and write, adult education in these areas got equated with adult literacy promotion. Thus, universalization of literacy became part of Unesco's commitment and adult literacy promotion got on Unesco's agenda from its very inception in 1946. Half a century later, UNESCO remains the conscience keeper of the world in regard to the universalization of literacy.

Multiple meanings of functionality

The function originally assigned to adult literacy by UNESCO was that of engendering the most generalized functionality and perhaps the most crucial functionality among adult learners. Literacy was to do no less than play its part in constructing defenses of peace in the minds of men and women. The ability to read and write was considered "an elementary freedom", and a matter of "basic unity and basic justice." Thus the function of adult literacy was to enable individuals to become functional in their own cultures and then learn about other cultures to understand the common humanity of all human beings and to contribute to international understandings.

Over a period of time, this generalized functionality acquired one or another specificity to suit the temper and the need of the time. In the mid-1960s, in trying to cope with the development hopes of Third World nations, economic functionality came to be center stage, though lip-service was paid also to social, and cultural needs of human beings. The Teheran Conference of 1965 asked that functional literacy - now defined as economic functionality - be the focus of efforts world-wide. Economic motivations were to be at the core of literacy programming. Functional literacy would now be based on the psychology of man and woman at work. Both the programme and the instruction of literacy would be so organized that the learner would be unaware of there being two streams of learning - literacy skills and economic skills. These two learning streams would be seen as one. To quote from the Teheran Conference Report (1965):

[Functional literacy was accepted] "as an essential element in overall development ... closely linked to economic and social priorities and to present and future manpower needs"... [The delegates] "accepted the new concept of functional literacy, which implies more than the rudimentary knowledge of reading and writing that is often inadequate and sometimes chimerical. Literacy instruction must enable illiterates, left behind by the course of events and producing too little, to become socially and economically integrated in a new world order where scientific and technological progress calls for ever more knowledge and specialization (Unesco 1965, p. 29)."

But there were discordant voices at the Teheran Conference. In the very next paragraph, the Teheran Conference Report went on to say: "Some delegates considered that efforts should also be directed towards achieving greater human and cultural integration. It was acknowledged that literacy work should not be regarded as an end in itself, but as an indispensable means of promoting the general, harmonious development of illiterate masses (Unesco, 1965, p. 29)."

During the ten years following, the exclusive focus on economic functionality was under attack for reasons both of ideology (as this version of functional literacy was contemptuously labelled as industrial literacy) and of effectiveness (as the teaching of economic skills alone was not considered good enough). The Persepolis Declaration of 1975 demanded that literacy be "a contribution to the liberation of man and to his full development." It asked that literacy should teach "critical consciousness" and that it make people capable of "acting upon their world, transforming it" for "authentic human development." Reading the word and reading the world were seen to be connected, one with the other. There was a demand for structural changes in the social, economic and political arrangements of societies that tolerated inequality (Bataille, 1976).

Twenty years later at mid-1990s, the argument is by no means finally settled. The concept of a generalized functional literacy (a combination of literacy, functionality, and awareness) is often accepted. The list of minimum objectives includes not just food but also fairness, fulfillment, and freedom. Literacy with this sort of generalized core of functionality is, in turn, equated with basic education (Bhola, 1989a) and whatever the definition of basic education, literacy has come to be at the core of all basic education. In the language of the Inter-agency Commission (1989, p. 53):

[Literacy is] "a life skill and the primary learning tool for personal and community development and self-sufficiency.... Literacy is now seen as the foundation for life skills ranging from basic oral and written communication to the ability to solve complex scientific and social problems.... The new definition makes it clear that literacy is the primary enabling force for all further education. It is a uniquely effective tool for further learning, for accessing and processing information, for creating new knowledge, and for participating in one's own culture and the emerging world culture."

Definitions of literacy for the world of practice

While ideological and conceptual battles for the soul of literacy continue to rage, for literacy professionals there is the practical need for workable definitions of literacy that can be used to separate non-literates from literates and then to be able to differentiate among various levels of achievement of individuals and groups of new literates. Planners and policy makers also need to know about the overall status of literacy in communities, regions and nations to be able to plan initiatives of literacy promotion and to monitor and evaluate results of such initiatives.

All that requires definitions of literacy that can help measure achievements and results. In his classic work, The Teaching of Reading and Writing, William S. Gray (1966) provides the most basic definition of literacy as the ability to read and write (typically, in the mother tongue, it should be added). In so defining literacy, "the main attainments sought were measured in terms of ability to read an easy passage and to write one's name or a simple message (Gray 1966, p. 20). To add concreteness to the definition of literacy there was a search for standards, and in the beginning literacy was often measured in terms of years of schooling. A person was considered literate if this person's attainments were equivalent to those of a person who had successfully completed three years of schooling (Gray 1966, p.25). Such a standard would be extremely inadequate in most societies in today's global culture of print. In fact in USA today, 12 years of schooling is considered essential for functional literacy.

Gray, in his above-mentioned book (1966) also suggested definitional criteria for functional literacy, stating that "a person is functionally literate when he has acquired the knowledge and skills in reading and writing which enable him to engage effectively in all those activities in which literacy is normally assumed in his culture or group (p. 24)." This definition of functional literacy clearly anticipated the set of definitions of literacy and functional literacy later adopted by Unesco for purposes of developing standards of measuring literacy:

A person is literate who can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his everyday life.

A person is illiterate who cannot with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his everyday life.

A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community's development.

A person is functionally illiterare who cannot engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community's development. (Unesco General Conference, 20th Session, Paris, 1978, p.4, in UNESCO's standard-setting instruments).

Contextuality of definitions; Complexity of measurements

The definitions of literacy immediately preceding seem to make a distinction between what could perhaps be called "ordinary literacy" and "functional literacy." The definition of functional literacy given above implies individual attainment of a set of literacy, and social, economic and political skills that would enable the new literate to navigate in own culture and have the utilitarian skills to contribute to the development of own community. The resonance of this definition of functional literacy to what we have called generalized functional literacy (including the three components of literacy, functionality and awareness) is quite clear.

Neither the definition of functional literacy as skills of navigating in one's culture, nor the definition of generalized functional literacy have proved to be useful. First, the concepts in the definitions have been difficult to operationalize, beset as they are with the relativities of language, content and level of difficulty of text, occupational needs, social roles, and cultural demands. Second, it has not been always possible to integrate the multiple streams of literacy, functionality and awareness in one integrated curriculum, and to find teachers who could teach all the three components with confidence and competence. The teaching of both functionality and awareness has been difficult to handle by the typical literacy instructor in the developing world - under-educated, poorly-trained and volunteering to work for a very small stipend. Inter-departmental team building for the delivery of adult literacy education has been well-nigh impossible. Third, these definitions give us the "metaphor" for conceptualizing literacy but not the "mathematics for its measurement". The iron law of statistics is at work - statistics keep the numbers (some sort of test scores) made by learners and squeeze out the meanings that these programmes may have in the lives of adult learners.

Literacy practitioners in dealing with these many relativities and multiple complexities, have responded with contextualized definitions of literacy. These definitions are rooted in the ideology and technology of their programmes and projects. Thus there is talk of critical literacy, emancipatory literacy, and empowering literacy. Within each category they have sought further concretization by developing criterion referenced protocols and tests to monitor and evaluate achievement according to standards defined by themselves in their particular contexts.

Today, the label of functional literacy seems to have been left by custom and convention to those who want to emphasize economic functionality - teaching and learning of economic skills within literacy programs leading to higher productivity and income generation. Functional literacy has come to be equated with work-oriented literacy.