Illiteracy in Germany: more than seven million adults are barely able to read and write

Germany has a population of over 80 million. Of these, about 7.5 million adults between the ages of 18 and 64 are ‘functionally illiterate’ and can barely read and write. But help is available for those affected.

UNESCO estimates that, around the world, about 780 million people are barely able to read or write, or can not do so at all. The problem exists not only in poor countries or those where wars and civil wars make it impossible to sustain a formal school system for years at a time. In Germany too, many people are classed as ‘functionally illiterate’. This means they read and write so badly that they have to rely on outside help in their daily lives.

According to a study by the University of Hamburg, of the 80 million or more people who live in Germany, about 7.5 million adults between the ages of 18 and 64 are affected by illiteracy. That is roughly the same number as the combined population of Germany’s four largest cities, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne. An astonishingly high number. But there are lots of options available to all those who decide they want to learn how to read and write. And there are plenty of examples that prove how worthwhile it can be. Tim-Thilo Fellmer is one such example.

Video ‘Have courage! The next step is worth it.’ (in German only)

When he was very young, Tim-Thilo actually looked forward to starting school. He’d learn to write there. Soon he’d be able to read. Whole new worlds would open up to him. At least, that’s what he thought. But all too soon he began to see he was having trouble keeping up with his fellow pupils. ‘That made me feel really bad,’ says Fellmer. ‘If you are always at or near the bottom of the class, and you can’t do all the things the others can, then it just seems too demanding, and there’s a sadness that’s always with you, and a fear too.’

Tim-Thilo’s teachers were not unaware of his weakness, but they couldn’t really help him, in a class of 30 children. After already having needed to repeat his first year, in the second year he was diagnosed with ‘reading and spelling weakness’ (dyslexia). However, as Fellmer now knows, this diagnosis was wrong. Dyslexia is an innate reading and spelling weakness. It can be passed on genetically and its cause is located in the brain. It is possible to provide targeted support to those affected. They’ll be dyslexic all their lives, but that doesn’t have to get in the way of their schooling or a successful career.

Strategies for hiding illiteracy

It is also important to give targeted support to those who are not dyslexic, who simply can’t read or write very well – but a different kind of support to that for dyslexic people. Because, unlike dyslexia, illiteracy does not have a medical cause. Rather, it derives from inopportune circumstances, for instance from moving home frequently at primary school age or from problems in the family. Yet illiteracy goes undetected much too often, or its is wrongly interpreted.

One reason for this is also that, quite often, illiterate people become very adept at hiding their weakness. This begins already at school, where they trick their teachers to cope with written tasks and try to do especially well in spoken tasks. Later, in the workplace, if a colleague is unable to read and write it can often go unnoticed for a long time. Tina F., for instance, who works as a local transport passenger attendant. She learned the plan of the Berlin S-Bahn lines by heart, as well as all the timetables, so that she could provide information to travellers looking for the shortest connections or the departure times of specific trains.

Of course, you need help to pull this off. So an illiterate person who wants to hide their weakness always needs an ‘accomplice’, who helps them in important situations. When it comes to filling in forms, for example, or reading instruction manuals, or indeed, learning the S-Bahn timetable by heart like Tina F.

Together for literacy and basic education

You can find out more about Tim-Thilo Fellmer as well as other success stories by visiting the website of the campaign ‘Lesen & Schreiben: Mein Schlüssel zur Welt’ (‘Reading and writing: my key to the world’), run by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). And you can listen, too, because at this address, all the texts are available as audio files too (in German only).

A whole new life

Despite his illiteracy, Tim-Thilo Fellmer also managed to bluff his way through school and early adulthood, until he was 25. With a lot of good will on the part of his teachers he scraped through his basic school leaving certificate, and with his father’s help, he even found an apprenticeship as a car mechanic. But then, he says, ‘at some point the difficulties just got too big. I fell into a really deep hole. And that’s when I decided to try and do something that I didn’t really believe I would cope with.

He began attending classes in reading and writing at the local Volkshochschule, so that gradually, over several years, he could make good on the things he’d missed at school. He had to deal with quite a few setbacks, and gave up on courses now and then. But finally the penny seemed to drop, and his reading began to get better and better. He found it more and more enjoyable. So much so that he began racing through any kinds of books he could get in his hands. Now, the new worlds he’d been dreaming of as a child really did open up.

And a door had also opened for Fellmer, the door to an entirely new life. A life in which writing has even become his profession! As a successful author of children’s and young adult books with his own publishing business, he is an example of how the effort of learning to read and write at a later date can really pay off, and of how you should never let setbacks discourage you. It took Fellmer ten years. That was a long time, but at the end of it he now enjoys a free and self-determined life, without the fear and shame that used to weigh down on him.

Tim-Thilo Fellmer: ‘Illiterate in the past, successful author today’ (in German only)

Taboo subject of illiteracy

There’s a German saying that goes, ‘What little Hans doesn’t learn, big Hans will never learn.’ In other words, if a person fails to learn something as a child at school, they certainly won’t learn it as an adult. As the story of Tim-Thilo Fellmer shows, that is obviously nonsense!

But the fact remains that in Germany, only a fraction of those affected choose to attend the kind of adult literacy courses that are on offer in all large towns and cities. According to the ‘Bundesverband Alphabetisierung und Grundbildung e.V,’ (German association of literacy and basic education), there are only around 20,000 to 30,000 learners enrolled in such courses. A frighteningly small number.

February 2016


20 March 2019

Good day Sir
My name is Martins, TIM-THILO am really inspired by your articles and how u were able to achieve what you achieve despite your dyslexia challenges. I have dyslexia am on adult my major problem is spelling words, I can read but not very well and I understand mathematics easily. I use software at times to help myself....thanks you

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