Andréa Novais

Andréa Novais

The Brazil Business


Functional Illiteracy: a Problem for Brazilian Businesses

Andréa Novais

Andréa Novais

The Brazil Business


Even though 90% of the Brazilian children are going to school and more than 50% of the Brazilian teenagers finish high school, functional illiteracy still configures a major problem in Brazil.

Functional Illiteracy: a Structural Problem

Roughly speaking, functional illiteracy is the inability to read and write beyond basic levels. The individual who suffers from functional illiteracy is able to read simple sentences, but cannot make meaning out of utterances, which are sentences in context.

Let’s use as an example the following utterance:

“Every Monday I need you to check the e-mail box and print all the incoming orders.”

A functionally illiterate person would be able to identify that the letters “E-V-E-R-Y” put together form the word “every”, but it would be difficult for him/her (if not impossible) to understand the instruction being given.

When we say that some undergraduate students are functionally illiterate, it does not necessarily mean that they can’t understand instructions, but that they cannot write a text properly, make meaning out of more complex texts or even solve problems that they were expected to as professionals, such as a secretary who can’t write a memo.

Functional Illiteracy in Brazil

In 1984, UNESCO started to work on a project to eradicate illiteracy around the globe, so from 1984 to 1994, Brazil was receiving an annual amount of money to be invested in the public educational system. In 1994, countries receiving this financial aid were required to present statistic data showing improvements in the educational level of the population.

Afraid of losing the investment made by UNESCO, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Brazilian president back then, developed a plan named Continued Progression. Such plan included several initiatives that would prevent the student from failing. It does not mean that students would have learned and for this reason, would be approved; yet, it meant that students would be approved, even if they had not learned anything at all.

The immediate result was positive, at least to UNESCO’s eyes, as Brazil was presenting positive numbers regarding its educational system and for this reason, continued to receive the financial aid. However, the direct consequence of such initiative was that students were graduating from high school and were unable to write properly. They can identify what the combination of letters represent and therefore read a sentence, but without making any meaning out of it.

Aware of the situation, both students and teachers got demotivated and their attempts to effectively improve education turned into indifference and disrespect: those who were good students would no longer work hard if they were to receive the same mark the bad students would receive; teachers would no longer be worried about effectively teaching if the evaluation methods were fake and their attributions as educators were diminished.

Obstacles to the Brazilian Higher Education

With more students graduating from high school, higher education became a profitable business in Brazil. The admission to Brazilian universities happens through a process called vestibular, an exam that supposedly checks if the applicant is apt to get into an undergraduate course or not.

At first it was hard to get a college degree as vestibular was more rigid, but as the demand for undergraduate courses increased and prices for college tuition decreased, getting into most private universities in Brazil turned out to be very easy. There had been cases of people who had never showed up to take the exam, but even so received a welcome letter saying that they had been approved.

The more higher education became a business in Brazil, the less rigorous most private universities became, admitting students who were completely unable to write properly or solve basic math problems. The same continued progression model was somehow incorporated to most private universities as students came to classroom without the necessary knowledge to take a higher education course.

What higher education has been doing is to try to cover-up a problem that is structural: 38% of their students can’t read or write properly and this is not a problem that should be solved by the university, but a problem that should have been treated when the student was still in the early stages of learning.

How is it Reflected in Business?

When you hire an accountant you expect him/her to be able to do some math, however, you may end up hiring an accountant who does not know how to solve a simple logic problem. It is not uncommon to hear of English teachers who basically do not speak English at all.

Such problem leads to expenses and losses, as time will be spent to teach basic concepts and there is always the chance that the person simply won’t learn. Also, the learning obtained from the undergraduate course is compromised and the employee may be unable to provide the service he/she was hired to.

Another direct effect is the professional shortage that inflates salaries and generates extra costs for employers. Hiring a good employee is already a tough job, but hiring employees from some particular areas can be even harder.

Engineers and IT professionals are hard to find in Brazil, despite all the incentives from the federal government in order to expand these two areas. And the reason why there are few people graduating from these courses is exactly the functional illiteracy: they just can’t take some classes without knowing basic mathematics, chemistry and physics. Of course, the tuition prices, especially for Engineering, are not attractive either.

If you need a professional from these two areas who speaks English, then you are in trouble. A recent research made by a job portal has shown that only 11% of the Brazilian professionals can communicate in English and only 3,4% of them can speak the language fluently. It is not out of nothing that these professionals are among those who are considered to receive the most generous salaries in Brazil.

How to Solve the Problem?

The solution to this problem is prevention. When you receive the applicant’s résumé and check his/her academic background, apply a test approaching how his/her skills will be used while working for you. If you need an accountant, have the applicant doing some ledgers, solving some math problems; if you need a writer, have your applicant writing a text according to your company’s need and so forth.

However, if the problem is to find people who would be approved on your tests, it may be required to do some investment. Try to negotiate with your employee if he/she could take a specific course and you two could split the tuition, or offer an introductive course about how to work for your company.