Illiteracy and literacy: Concepts and understanding in
Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, United Kingdom, Denmark and Spain


The overall concept and understanding of illiteracy and literacy is largely adapted from the definition provided by UNESCO. However “functional illiteracy” is a term which is rarely used in Austria any more. It’s been replaced by the term “people with basic education needs”. This new term emphasizes a different focus and therefore seeks to remove the stigma associated with being a “functional illiterate”.

The concept of basic education is very flexible. There is no standardised definition of basic education. The benefit of this is that the concept is adaptable enough to meet the needs and requirements of different target groups in different phases of life, with different circumstances and environments.
In Bulgaria, national legislation in the field of education does not yet specifically deal with the issue of illiteracy, although several pilot projects, most of them involving the Ministry of Education, have been undertaken to examine the issue. The Employment Encouraging Act however, considers the literacy issue in the context of the process of becoming literate. This process is explained as acquiring basic knowledge and skills in reading, writing, and mathematics, as well as in humanities and natural sciences.

In Bulgarian research literature, literacy is viewed as the ability to read and write, but also to comprehend information and express ideas in a concrete or abstract way.
According to German literature there is a distinction between 3 types of illiteracy:
“Primärer Analphabetismus” (primary illiteracy): This refers to an individual who did not learn to read or write during their childhood or adolescence.
“Sekundärer Analphabetismus” (secondary illiteracy): This refers to individuals who acquired reading and writing skills during their childhood and adolescence, but lost these skills over a period of time due to the lack of opportunity to use and apply them.
“Funktionaler Analphabetismus” (functional illiteracy): The term “funktionaler Analphabetismus” refers to the difference between an individual’s existing and necessary (or expected) level of reading and writing skills at a particular time. A person is described as functionally illiterate if their individual reading and writing skills are significantly lower than those expected or required within the particular society within which the individual lives.
United Kingdom
The term ‘functional illiteracy’ is not used in England. An individual would be described as having ‘literacy, language and numeracy skills needs’. This terminology represents a shift away from a focus on deficiency and the stigma often associated with poor literacy, language and numeracy skills.

Concern about the levels of literacy, language and numeracy skills amongst the adult population led to the launch of the Skills for Life Strategy in 2001. This strategy highlighted young adults as one of the key target groups in the government’s plans to improve literacy, language and numeracy skills.
The term “functional illiteracy” is used in Denmark when talking about the increasing demands of the Labour Market and society in general concerning literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. However in literature, research and educational areas the term “læse- og skrivevanskeligheder” (reading and writing difficulties) is used. There are different degrees of difficulties and the term is also used in concern to dyslectic people together with the terms “ordblindhed” (Danish word for dyslexia) or “dyslexia”.
Apart from the generic meaning of illiteracy in Spain, the term is widely used to appoint to the individuals who are ignorant or lack elementary training in some discipline. In these cases, we usually speak of functional illiteracy, which is the inability to comprise the explicit and implicit ideas of a text and issue a critical judgement. This means that the functional illiterate knows how to pronounce and decode written words, but he is not able to put them into the practice neither to understand them.

A core component of the concept of functional literacy is the one which connects to the social project of society. It is convenient to consider literacy as the ability to acquire and exchange information through the written words. We should understand the functional literacy as the possession and access to the skills required carrying out transactions involving reading and writing, and that an individual wants or needs to do.

Besides, in the last years, it has been developed the concept of digital illiteracy, which refers to the people who do not have the necessary knowledge for interacting with new technologies, such as Internet.

Health literacy

Health literacy is an individual's ability to read, understand and use healthcare information to make decisions and follow instructions for treatment. There are multiple definitions of health literacy, in part because health literacy involves both the context (or setting) in which health literacy demands are made (e.g., health care, media, Internet or fitness facility) and the skills that people bring to that situation.

There are many factors that determine the health literacy level of health education materials or other health interventions. Reading level, numeracy level, language barriers, cultural appropriateness, format and style, sentence structure, use of illustrations, interactiveness of intervention, and numerous other factors will affect how easily health information is understood and followed.

Computer literacy

Computer literacy, the ability to use computers to perform a variety of tasks, is becoming fundamental to the learning process. The "information age" perhaps best describes the twentieth century; the next century has been described as the "information processing" age. A wide variety of computer skills are useful and, in some cases required, as an essential part of college learning and employment for most individuals.

Information literacy

Information Literacy can be defined as the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand. It describes of a set of competencies that an informed citizen of an information society ought to possess to participate intelligently and actively in that society.

Other educational goals, including traditional literacy, computer literacy, library skills, and critical thinking skills, are related to information literacy and important foundations for its development.

Financial literacy

Financial literacy is the ability to understand finance. More specifically, it refers to the set of skills and knowledge that allows an individual to make informed and effective decisions through their understanding of finances. Raising interest in personal finance is now a focus of state-run programs in countries including Australia, Japan, the United States and the UK.

The OECD started an inter-governmental project in 2003 with the objective of providing ways to improve financial education and literacy standards through the development of common financial literacy principles.