Functional literacy for liberation?

BY: Dr W. B. Owusu
The writer
The writer

Literacy connotes a concise set of reading, writing, basic mathematics, speech, and comprehension skills. It is (i) an essential commodity for societal advancement, (ii) an embodiment of the capacity of individuals and the public to obtain, process, and understand basic information and services needed to make appropriate decisions, (iii) significantly positively correlated with indicators of economic viability and quality of life at both individual and aggregate levels.

Since 1967, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has led the global commemoration of International Literacy Day (ILD) to remind the public of the importance of literacy and its huge favourable modifying effect on human dignity, responsibility and rights.

This year’s event is on the theme: “Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces”.

By default, I associate the attainment of literacy with teachers and their educational institutions (at the primary and secondary levels), and centres for Adult Education and Distance Learning (at the University of Ghana, Legon and institutions).


Adult literacy rate is the percentage of people aged 15 and above who can read and write with an understanding, of a simple statement about their everyday lives.

Ghana’s rate for 2018 was about 79 per cent (We have the Education Act (Act 778), 2008, which seeks to champion quality education through literacy in the country).

Despite some progress made, there are still approximately 771 million illiterates worldwide. Il(L)iteracy pervades many aspects of our lives.

Educational (generic) literacy

Literacy is generically associated with education, be it formal or informal. Educators do not associate literacy with reading alone, but also consider it to represent a constellation of skills, including reading, writing, basic mathematical calculations, speech and comprehension skills.

Speech and comprehension are collectively termed oral literacy, while reading and writing are referred to as print literacy.

It has further been differentiated into basic print literacy, literacy for different types of text, and functional literacy. In other words, basic print literacy reflects the ability to read, write, and understand written language.

Health literacy

Health literacy consists of reading or text literacy. It is the bridge between the literacy (and other) skills and abilities of an individual and the healthcare system. This entails the ability to read and understand what a healthcare officer may write on your card.

Health literacy is of concern, particularly for those involved in health promotion, disease prevention, screening, health care and maintenance, and policy formulation.

The skills involved are vital for dialogue and discussion between clients and healthcare providers, through being able to read health information, interpret charts (e.g. paediatric growth monitoring and immunisation cards from child welfare clinics, BP values, etc.), make decisions about participating in research studies, compliance with medical prescriptions using simple medical tools for personal or familial health care.

Health literacy is a shared function of cultural, social, and individual factors. We need to appreciate this fact in our collective quest to remedy any untoward situation.

Literacy provides the skills that enable individuals to understand and communicate health information and concerns. Examples of these are pictures and notes on posters at the OPD, words and/or figures found on labels in market stalls, in health education brochures, on medicine bottles or in informed consent documents.


Literacy is also a plus in situations where farmers and farmhands are literate. This will facilitate the interaction(s) they would have with agric. extension officers, among others. Their bookkeeping
practices would also be far better.

With drivers, especially commercial ones, literacy would enhance their interpretation of road signs (on both long and short routes), and help avoid some of the accidents attributable to ignorance.


Key players in our stride to minimise the defects of illiteracy in society include the media, the marketplace, NGOs, educational institutions, advocacy groups and government agencies. These together must provide basic health information in an appealing, strategic and effective manner.

Although the potential causal relationships between health literacy and health outcomes are not yet firmly established, the available cumulative and consistent findings suggest that such a relationship may exist.

Further research is needed to discover it, in the sincere hope for our total liberation.

The writer is a Harvard-trained freelance writer on science and public health matters. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.