Illiteracy and literacy

Illiterate individuals

Today, on the way to work, at the grocery store or when you went to pick up your kids from school, you may have crossed paths with someone who is illiterate. You may have exchanged a few words with them without being aware of their difficulties. They may even be someone close to you: your spouse, father, sister or friend.

Illiteracy has many faces: young dropouts, forest industry workers, young single mothers, female immigrant textile workers, men, women, living in the city or in the regions, young people or pensioners can all be illiterate. It is wrong to think that illiterate individuals live far away from us. On the contrary, they are close by, here among us, but are ashamed to reveal their difficulties.

Today, you may have crossed paths with someone who is illiterate....


  • Rarely admits to having trouble reading and writing. He is ashamed of this condition, and thinks he is the only one in it.
  • Generally has low self-esteem, and feels very vulnerable to anyone she sees as more “educated” than she is. She can exhibit submissiveness or become aggressive in a situation she does not fully understand.
  • Has learned to use a broad range of tricks to hide his difficulties.
  • Often has trouble pronouncing words because she lacks the knowledge to make out the syllables forming them, so she will often say them as she hears them.
  • Often lacks the vocabulary he needs to express his thoughts clearly.
  • Often has difficulty with perception of time and space.



  • Use simple vocabulary and short sentences; rephrase your idea if you sense it has not been fully understood. But do not talk to the person as if they were a child. Create a climate of confidence and trust.
  • Simplify the more technical vocabulary specific to a company or government department, and avoid the numerous abbreviations which often mean nothing to the person you are talking to.
  • If the person in front of you wants to read the document you are giving him somewhere else or later, give a short, clear summary of the content, providing the main information.
  • Take the initiative of writing down legibly the important information you want to convey.
  • De-dramatize the situation by confiding that you often meet people who have difficulty reading and writing and that you can “give them a hand.”
  • Make sure the date of an upcoming meeting or an event to which you are inviting the person is clearly understood and, when necessary, provide reference points, such as “in two weekends’ time” or “the week after Christmas” or “right after the children start their vacation,” and so on.
  • Avoid sending a reminder by mail to confirm an appointment. Instead, use the telephone.
  • If you come across the same person more regularly, let him know that he can improve his condition and that several thousand people in his situation have gone back to school for adults: give him the number for the Info-Alpha line and tell him that specialized agents can provide him with comprehensive information on the resources that best meet his needs and expectations.