Recognizing an illiterate person

Illiteracy has many faces

Today, on your way to work, running errands or picking up your children from school, you may have passed an illiterate person. You may have even exchanged a few words with them without realizing what their difficulties were.

It may even be someone you know, your spouse, father, sister or friend. 

It is a mistake to think that illiterate people don’t live all around us; they are but they are ashamed to reveal their difficulties.

To find out if you know a person who is illiterate or has reading difficulties, check off the situations you have encountered from the following statements. If you select more than one, you have most likely been in the presence of an illiterate person.

I’ve met someone who…

Often find excuses to read material at home.

Has difficulty pronouncing long or complex words.

Has a limited vocabulary.

Has difficulty expressing simple ideas or abstract concepts.

Prefers to memorize information rather than write it down.

Regularly asks someone to write for them.

Submits invoices or memos with several spelling errors.

Refuses a new promotion.

Forgets to show up for meetings despite written confirmation.

Keep in mind that an illiterate person…

Rarely admits to having reading and writing difficulties. They are ashamed and believe they are alone in this situation.

Generally has low self-esteem and easily feels vulnerable when in the presence of anyone they consider more “educated” than themselves. They may act submissive or aggressive when faced with a situation they do not fully understand.

Has learned to use many tricks to hide their difficulties.

Often has trouble with pronunciation as they do not have the knowledge needed to discern the syllables in a word; therefore, they will often pronounce a word as they hear it.

Often lacks the vocabulary required to explain their thinking.

Often has difficulty with the perception of time and space.

Advice on how to act


Use simple vocabulary and short sentences; rephrase your idea in other words if you feel it has not been well understood. However, do not address the person as you would a child. Create a trusting environment.


Simplify the more technical vocabulary specific to a business or government department by avoiding numerous abbreviations, which often make no sense to the person you are speaking with.


If the person wants to read the document you are presenting later, make a brief, clear summary of the content, highlighting the key information.


Take the initiative to write down legibly the important information you want to convey.


Play down the situation by confiding that you often encounter people with literacy difficulties and that you can give them a “helping hand”.


Make sure the person understands the date of an upcoming meeting or event to which you are inviting them and, if necessary, give cues such as “in two weekends” or “during the week after Christmas” or ”right after school vacation starts”, etc.


Avoid sending a reminder letter if you want to confirm an appointment date: use the phone instead.


If you are with the same person on a more regular basis, let them know that they can improve their situation and that many thousands of people like them have returned to adult school. Give them the number of the line and tell them that specialists can provide them with information on the resources that best meet their needs and expectations.

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