Stanley: I feel really awkward with you reading over my shoulder like that, so...
Zero: I can't read.A common plot for a Very Special Episode: A character, typically a friend or acquaintance of The Hero, is revealed to be illiterate by some odd quirk of behavior. This is typically a shameful secret to them; the episode typically ends with their beginning to study, and the issue is never mentioned again. This plot lends itself to mysteries because of the suspicious behavior used to cover-up illiteracy and the opportunity for a character to be cleared of crime because the crime depended upon being literate. This trope has started to invite parody, and is probably on its way to becoming a Discredited Trope in relatively wealthy societies due to the vast majority of the people within possessing functional literacy. If it's still played straight, the character will probably be dyslexic, with the Aesop being that this has nothing to do with being uneducated and should not be a source of shame. Characters are also occasionally revealed to be unable to read English (or whatever is the dominant language where they are living) due to being recent immigrants. Stories set in or around the Industrial Revolution (or similar time periods where universal education is a recent invention) may have the character in question quit school at a young age in order to support his family, or due to some other bit of the harshness of life. These Tragic Dropouts simply do not have the time to learn how to read, having never had the security of life to allow for an education. By the time they do become secure enough in their livelihood to take the time, they are simply too ashamed to admit it and usually get by with only a very basic literacy, or (if they're old enough) claiming that their eyes aren't what they used to be.
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Anime & Manga
- Played for laughs in one episode of Samurai Champloo where Mugen is revealed to be illiterate because of his habit of always ordering the same thing as his companions Fuu and Jin. A rather enthusiastic teacher acts as a Drill Sergeant Nasty and teaches him to read, and at the end of the episode, Mugen uses his newly acquired skills as a Graffiti artist as well as tagging his name on his companions' clothing... and possessions... and pet. Incidentally, using this trope is a good example of the Anachronism Stew of the series: Mugen is a nineteen-year-old from Ryukyu who has been a criminal his entire life; realistically Fuu and Jin should have been more surprised if he could read.
- Played with in Pokémon Special. It is revealed that Wild Child Sapphire is barely literate when she has to pass a written test for the chance to battle Roxanne, and of course, said Gym Leader mocked her and lectured her on the importance of reading. Sapphire's illiteracy can easily be attributed to her lifestyle... but also due to her lifestyle, she's well versed in Pokemon ecology and biology, meaning that once she had someone read the questions for her, she ended up the first person ever to score a perfect mark on Roxanne's test.
- In Neon Genesis Evangelion, Asuka portrays the recent immigrant version. She's been failing tests at school, but when Shinji is having issues with a math problem and reads it out loud, she solves it easily in her head. When he expresses his shock that she's not getting better grades, she reveals that it is because she can't read the kanji in the tests.
- Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts does this with But Not Too Foreign Minami Shimada, who is Japanese but lived in Germany until the events of the series, so her reading and writing comprehension of kanji is poor, to the point that she is landed in Class F with the other protagonists, and in the second season, we learn through a Whole Episode Flashback that on her first day at Fumizuki Academy, she even accidentally wrote her name wrong. This handicap is used in the end of the episode for a truly stellar moment.
- In a flashback in Fairy Tail, Natsu says his Disappeared Dad Igneel taught him how to read, but it turned out he only learned the words that have to do with food. Erza gives him a strict lesson that teaches him the other words in about three days. In the present, Natsu still has a little difficulty and reads very slowly, often having to sound the words out.
- Apparently, Japan assumed as much about Italy in Axis Powers Hetalia:
- In Fate/Apocrypha, Jeanne d'Arc never learned to read since she was a farmer's daughter turned warrior. However, since the Holy Grail provides the Servants with basic knowledge of the modern world, it doesn't hinder her that much.
- Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans: A large number of the boys in CGS/Tekkadan, including the protagonist Mikazuki, due to never having had a formal education. When Kudelia offers to teach Mika early in the series, he and a number of other boys eagerly start studying.
- In one of his stand-ups, Chris Rock talked about how American slaves weren't allowed to learn how to read, which must have lead to some rather awkward scenarios:
Slave driving a carriage: Oh Lord there's a stop sign up ahead, what is I gon' do?! If I don't stop I'll crash. If I stop, these crackers'll kill me! What is I gon' do...
(keeps going and causes a crash)
Cop: Nigga what's wrong with you! Couldn't you see that stop sign?!
Slave: Uh... you mean dat octagon thing?
Cop: Nigga, who taught you OCTAGON?!
- Bizenghast: Edrear is shown to be illiterate. This is Played for Laughs when Edrear asks directions to a store called Jacys, and it is revealed to be directly behind him (and clearly labeled).
- Batgirl 2000:
- Cassandra Cain, Batgirl II, was raised to be the perfect assassin by her father, who never even spoke in front of her, so she didn't know how to speak, much less to read. When she was taken in by the Batfamily, she spent her life as a crime-fighter. It was consistently depicted as a set-back, and eventually caused the rift between Oracle and her, after Oracle called her "stupid" in the middle of a battle while Cassie was desperately trying to shut down a killer robot, hurting Cass deeply.
Oracle: You're kidding — you still don't even know the damn alphabet?! All those hours you spend practicing martial arts and you can't spare the time to learn your #$%@ ABC's?! For God's sake, Cassie — how stupid can you be?!
- Cassandra Cain has it worse than most. The reason her dad never spoke to her is to encourage the language centers of her brain to "read" body language. As such, besides the usual troubles of learning to read (and speak) later in life, her brain effectively developed in such a way that her ability to learn speech was almost completely demolished. Makes this a pretty big What the Hell, Hero? moment for Oracle, as she's effectively not only hurt by being reminded of her embarrassing handicap, it ignored the fact that the only reason she is that way is because of severe emotional abuse (her father would randomly attack her as part of her training) for the first several years of her life, culminating in her killing a man while knowing exactly how horrified he is. At age eight. That the only thing wrong with her brain is her difficulty with language is a sign of nothing short of Heroic Willpower.
- Cassandra Cain, Batgirl II, was raised to be the perfect assassin by her father, who never even spoke in front of her, so she didn't know how to speak, much less to read. When she was taken in by the Batfamily, she spent her life as a crime-fighter. It was consistently depicted as a set-back, and eventually caused the rift between Oracle and her, after Oracle called her "stupid" in the middle of a battle while Cassie was desperately trying to shut down a killer robot, hurting Cass deeply.
- Meggan from the X-Men spinoff Excalibur was illiterate since her inhuman appearance kept her from going to school as a child. During the course of the series, several members of the team offered to help tutor her, and near the end, she finishes her lessons and has an average adult reading level.
- New Mutants: Also X-related, Catseye from the Hellions was abandoned at birth since her mutation manifested early, and she spent much of her life thinking she was a cat who transformed into a human rather than vice-versa. Once discovered by Emma Frost, she went from complete illiteracy to grade school-level reading within a year, showing a hidden intelligence.
- The 100th issue of Groo the Wanderer (Marvel run) is about Groo learning to read.
- Roadbuster apparently never learned to read and somehow survived millions of years in spite of this handicap, as revealed in an addendum story to The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers. This is especially odd because Roadbuster is, well, a robot... and Cybertronians have been shown to possess internal heads-up displays which by their very nature require the ability to read.
- Much like Fenris in Dragon Age II, Marius of Magekiller is mostly illiterate due to being a former slave and relies on Tessa to read to him.
- The eponymous Crankshaft.
- This forms the premise of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic The Twilight Hours in which Twilight Sparkle discovers Applejack is illiterate. It's eventually revealed that she had to drop out of school to work on the farm after her parents died.
- Similarly, the fic Between the Lines shows that Big Macintosh never learned to read. It's shown that he stopped going to school because he felt obligated to take over his parents' responsibilities when they died and Granny Smith was in severe emotional shock over the tragedy to care of the farm herself, much to her chagrin.
- Luffy from None Piece is unable to read the disclaimer in episode 3, Played for Laughs.
- Teaching Ryuuko to read and spell is the subject of chapter 27 of Cellar Secrets,as by means of Wild Child, she never learned literacy. They managed to, however, she can't read much besides kindergarten and preschool level, along with the fact that she tends to disregard the syntaxes and the fact that she can't spell too many things, making her, in most senses of the term, functionally illiterate. Satsuki notes she might not advance very far.
Films — Live-Action
- The Reader, there are hints throughout the first half, and then it's dramatically revealed that a character is illiterate... and it's a very important plot point that could rule the lives of several people. This is a highly warped version of the trope, as the illiterate character commits crimes against humanity during the Holocaust Not only that but said character originally worked at a Siemens at the beginning of the war until she was proposed for a promotion. It is hinted she didn't want to accept that promotion since then people would find out she was illiterate so she joins the SS instead. Furthermore, both in the movie and in the book, it is mentioned at her trial that she would ask people sentenced to be gassed to read to her. In the book, the protagonist theorizes it was the other way around: she would ask people to read to her and send them to their deaths so they wouldn't reveal her secret.
- Parodied in a scene subtitled "Oscar Scene" in Wayne's World, where Wayne finishes up a tearful lament with "And worst of all, I never learned to READ!" The fact that Kate Winslet won an Oscar for The Reader a decade later only makes the Oscar Bait joke even funnier.
- Played for Laughs in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Draco Malfoy's line was ad-libbed during rehearsal by Tom Felton, and they kept it.
Draco: Why are you wearing glasses?
Harry disguised as Goyle: Oh, um, reading.
Draco: Reading? (Beat) I didn't know you could read...
- "Hoke" in Driving Miss Daisy couldn't read, but he could somehow get a driver's license despite this fact. Since he was licensed in the 1940s, one presumes the requirements were different at the time.
- This is essentially the plot of Stanley and Iris, starring Robert de Niro as illiterate cook Stanley and Jane Fonda as the widowed Iris who teaches him to read.
- In Braveheart, Murron tells William Wallace that she never learned to read, something that wasn't abnormal in the Scottish highlands in the 13th century.
- In 50 First Dates, Henry uses this as a trick to get Lucy to talk to him on one of the many days he introduces himself to her in the diner. He splashes water on his eyes and acts like he's crying until she comes to see what's wrong. When he confesses that he can't read the menu, she spends all morning sitting with him "teaching" him. He blows it though when he doesn't ask her for a second date (because he knows she won't remember) and she gets furious and reveals that she knew the whole thing was a ploy and went along with it because she liked him.
- In Corky Romano, one of Corky's brothers is "rumored" to be illiterate, with the FBI commenting that he hides it well. Throughout the movie his attempts to cover for himself are transparent (When he is buying ice cream from an ice cream truce he keeps naming flavors that they do not have, despite the operator telling him to read the menu on the side of the truck) and at the end of the movie his confession refers to points in the past where it had previously been an issue (He had gone to a store to buy cigarettes and had bought tampons instead). It is generally played for laughs except for his tearful confession at the end.
- A variant in Drumline, where the main character never learned to read music.
- Shirley in A League of Their Own (Mae teaches her with a romance novel).
- In Annie, this is Annie's dark secret, revealed when feckless Guy puts a speech on the teleprompter for her to read, assuming she can because of her age.
- In Miracle in Cell No. 7, So Yang-ho, a gang leader in prison, is exposed as illiterate when he is asked to read a children's storybook for the visiting daughter of one of the other prisoners and desperately tries to fake his way through it by making up a story based on the pictures. The other prisoners are incredibly shocked, wondering how he can be illiterate when he is so clever in every other way that matters (even in prison, he maintains a lot of connections and can sneak almost anything in and out of the facility). The other inmates and the child take turns teaching him how to read and write, and he eventually gets it.
- In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Jade Fox stole a manual on martial arts, but since she didn't know how to read, she was only able to pick up moves based on the pictures. Her friend Jen knew how to read and became a much more skilled martial artist after studying the manual, which led to Jade Fox hating her.
- In The Three Musketeers (1973) when the Duke of Buckingham asks D'Artagnan if he has read the Queen's letter, D'Artagnan admits that he cannot read. When he is sent some wine and a note in the sequel he gets around this by pretending the handwriting is so bad he cannot make it out and asks the quartermaster to try (this is different from the books where D'Artagnan is quite literate, even if he does hate Latin).
- The Principal: Ms. Orozco is giving Raymi after-school tutoring because it turns out that he's unable to read. When she decides to take a job at another school after one of the students tried to rape her, Rick personally takes over Raymi's lessons.
- Davos Seaworth in A Song of Ice and Fire. Due to his lowly origins, the smuggler-turned-knight-turned Lord never learned how to read. It's his elevation to Hand of the King that prompts him to learn, alongside his young son.
- This applies to the majority of common people in Westeros. Only nobles, maesters, septons etc. can usually be relied upon to be literate. In one scene Arya Stark is trying to show Hot Pie how to read a map, and he's astonished that she can actually read the place names written on it (unaware that she's actually nobleborn).
- Gilly outright calls Samwell Tarly a wizard when he proves able to "turn squiggles on paper into words".
- Brutha from the Discworld novel Small Gods is illiterate and remains that way through the duration of the book. He more than makes up for it, however, with his incredible memory: he recalls literally everything he experiences with perfect clarity.
- Seeing as Brutha's the prophet of a religion, this is likely a reference to Muhammad who similarly achieved prominence and spread a religion, but only learned to read at the end of his life.
- And also played with in Brutha's case because at one point he's called upon to memorize the contents of an entire library so that it can be reproduced even if the library is destroyed by Omnian fundamentalists. This being the Discworld, the books start to "leak", he gains the information without having understood the words that he memorized.
- Harry King, a former mud lark and now-recycling-mogul, never bothered to learn letters either. He hires people to read things aloud to him, but thinks of written words as a distraction to the business side of things.
- Also used for a quick gag with the Disorganiser demon who has "handwriting recognition" - it looks at it and says "Yep, that's handwriting."
- Garion in the Belgariad had his family deliberately keep him illiterate and socially isolated on a distant farm. This is because he's The Chosen One, and his coming and the great deeds he must perform were written down as prophecy ages go... and they don't want him reading or hearing about any spoilers. When he's already too far into his epic quest to back out then they finally allow one of his traveling companions (the one he's supposed to marry later, so they get lots of quality time together) to tutor him. The prequel, Belgarath the Sorcerer, gives another reason: one of his ancestors nearly threw Aloria into civil war after reading the prophecies and getting a swelled head, and they'd rather history not repeat itself. Or rather Polgara would rather it not. Belgarath thought it was a stupid idea(which it was), especially given unlike the one who messed up Garion did not know his heritage already, so there was no real worry.
- Sephrenia is deliberately illiterate in the Elenium trilogy. This is her own choice, however; she speaks both the Elene and Styric languages fluently, though Styric is her native tongue (And she can read Styric). She doesn't want to learn to read the Elene language because she doesn't want to accidentally become confused in a situation where she needs to think and speak very quickly in Styric (the language in which one casts magic).
- "The Verger" by W. Somerset Maugham is about a man whose illiteracy bars him from promotions in the local church, so he looks for alternatives and by opening tobacco shops makes a fortune. The last line makes the story. Go on - read it.
- Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn never learned because her immigrant parents didn't realize they were supposed to send her to school until she was too old to start.
- A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell is well-known for its opening line of "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write." Eunice, the family's maid, is obsessed with keeping her illiteracy a secret from everyone throughout the story, and the family's learning of it leads her to kill them all.
- Larten Crepsley in The Saga of Darren Shan. Considering his upbringing as a child laborer turned vampire's assistant, it's understandable.
- In the Horatio Alger, Jr. book Ragged Dick, young Dick realizes that his illiteracy will be an obstacle in his plan to lift himself by his bootstraps. He solves this by finding another orphan who was able to get some schooling before being kicked out on the streets, and allowing the boy to sublet his room in exchange for tutoring.
- Being literate is comparatively uncommon among most of the population of Redwall. Most of the Abbeydwellers learn enough of the basics to function, but most vermin and a few of the Long Patrollers don't really need to read.
- Jakub Wędrowycz's academic education is limited to three years of elementary Russian school, so he barely knows Latin alphabet (he never bothered to brush up on it in over 80 years).
- Eragon never learned to read (a fact that surprises Brom, since his uncle Garret was literate). Of course, it only takes a month of instruction for Eragon to be literate enough to gather information from government records, and only a few months after that for him to read philosophical discourse and write epic poetry (in a different language).
- A touchy subject for Todd in Chaos Walking. He never learned to read beyond a few words, and he can't even read his own mothers journal. Leads to a heartwarming moment wherein Viola reads out her journal for him.
- The aptly named Blood Knight Zsadist of J.R.Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series is illiterate for well over a century until he fell in love with the aristocratic vampire Bella, and learned to read in order to be "worthy of courting" her. Before then, Zsadist made no effort to change his illiterate state, though there were hints it did bother him, since it not only inconvenienced him but also forced him to rely on others - mainly his twin, Phury - to accomplish simple tasks. Once he recognized his feelings for Bella, he worked relentlessly with his tutor, Mary, with all his hard work at last culminating in him writing, "I love you" to Bella in a squiggly, childlike handwriting.
- Although there are newspapers and bookstores around, a point is made that illiteracy among lower-class people is common in A Brother's Price, since mothers make more money if their daughters work alongside them than if they're off in schools. Men are almost never taught to read. Cullen Moorland admits that his cousin tried to teach him, but he claims she was a poor teacher, and anyway it's not like his wives, once he's married, will let him read. The Whistlers, seriously thinking about courting him, feel differently.
- In Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Soren's mate Pellimore had never known to read until Soren taught her. And from there... the love blossoms...
- In The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers: There was a back-up story where Springer is in a coma and put in the care of Roadbuster on their base. Roadbuster passes the time by reading to him, having to learn to do so, because he's spent millions of years fighting. He continuously struggles and eventually reads almost all 331 cataloging their adventures to him, twice, the second time trying to get the more complex words right. He doesn't read 113, because they both know it's a lie, but he does reveal some circumstances that Springer never knew.
- Comes up by way of Culture Clash in Patricia C. Wrede's The Raven Ring. It's mentioned in one scene that the protagonist can't read, and it's implied that this is normal for her people, who have a strong Oral Tradition. She has no idea why her rich city-born companion is embarrassed to have brought the subject up.
- A large theme in Captive of the Orcs. Very few Orcs can read. Even high ranking Orcs are usually illiterate. On the other hand, the Luminean Exiles have near-universal literacy.
- Bards in the Deverry series are forbidden to read. They believe that if a bard learns so much as the name of a single letter of the alphabet, his Agwen (Muse/Patron goddess) will desert him forever. They pass on all their lore through oral tradition.
- Spenser encounters a college basketball star who can't read in the novel Playmates.
- In Matched, most people don't know how to read, since reading and books are outlawed.
- Inverted by Tarzan, he somehow taught himself to read English from some books his birth parents had, but didn't know how to speak it. In fact when he first meets other white people they assume he's a different man from the Tarzan who wrote the warning sign outside his parents' cabin because he can't understand their speech.
- In Holes, Zero agrees to dig Stanley's holes if he'll teach him how to read. Stanley is hesitant to foist his work on Zero, but Zero insists. The other campers begin to resent Stanley, because they think he's taking advantage of Zero. At the climax, the two are stuck in a hole surrounded by poisonous lizards and with the treasure the warden had been searching for. Zero suddenly asks Stanley if his full name is spelled the same forwards and backwards, and Stanley confirms it is. Zero asked because he noticed the name "Stanley Yelnats" on the treasure chest—proving that it originally belonged to Stanley's great-grandfather.
- Sharpe: This goes a long way to explain Satisfied Street Rat Richard Sharpe's Odd Friendship with the intensely aristocratic William Lawford.
Sharpe: We spent three months chained to a wall in India. He had a page of The Bible. In three months, he taught me to read and write. How do you thank a man who teaches you to write your own name, Captain?
- The Guns of the South: Nate Caudell ends up teaching a fair number of adults to read and write during his stint in the Confederate Army, and marvels at how deeply learning letters impacts people who learn it in adulthood.
- One Dinotopia book has a Satisfied Street Rat and the son of a middle-class man wash up around the 1800s. The poor kid asks the other one to put down his occupation as "entrepreneur", preemptively and defensively claiming he knows how to read and write- he just doesn't know how to spell it. The rich kid confesses he can't spell it either, and they share a laugh.
- In the Earthsea Cycle, the Kargs as a people view reading and writing as "black arts" and avoid them at all costs, though ironically they are excellent at mathematics. When Ged rescues Tenar from the Tombs of Atuan and brings her with him to his land, she eventually learns to how speak his language, and then to read and write in it.
- The Stormlight Archive: Part of the Vorin religion's strict gender roles mean that men are not allowed read. The only exception is if they become ardents (sort of priest-slaves), who legally have no gender and are supposed to learn all skills so they can provide aid to both men and women. It's not uncommon for Vorin men who have an interest in math or scholarship to join the ardentia. Furthermore, there are stylized glyphs which are practically a language in their own right, but since they are designed to be recognizable even by someone who was never seen them before, everyone insists it's not the same, and men are allowed to read them. Most men still don't learn them, though.
- Denny Blood from Bad Girls, after her mother writes her a letter of apology for abandoning her and begs her to read it.
- Jimmy Hickock in The Young Riders is a perfect example of this trope and one episode is devoted to his shameful secret being discovered by the other Riders. It is referred to in passing in later episodes, though.
- In one episode of Hamish Macbeth, Hamish's friend TV John is revealed to be illiterate. Being a mystery series, his illiteracy was the impetus for suspicious behavior.
- The first Rumpole of the Bailey story has Rumpole proving that a confession was coerced because the defendant can't read or write, and thus couldn't have written it/known what he was signing.
- There was an episode of Head of the Class where the star basketball player couldn't read. The smart kids tried to get him to be passable enough to pass his SATs so he could get into a college program; then he decided to turn pro right after high school; then he came clean and said he'd take a year off to learn to read. And of course he never showed up again.
- There was an episode of British tv series Black Books where a character was going to turn up to the bookshop to do a reading of his autobiography. Said character is a mafioso type ex-con who can't read (the autobiography was ghostwritten by "the guy who wrote the Spice Girls book").
- Keith Miller from EastEnders.
- My So-Called Life, "Why Jordan Can't Read". Subverts the single episode aspect in that Jordan doesn't start his tutoring right away (plus he's already been held back at least a year), and the fact that it pervades his character throughout the rest of the series. And that he can write music.
- One Kate And Allie saw Kate trying to teach the building's handyman to read. When he rebels at children's books, she presents him with an adult romance novel, which he is instantly able to read.
- Family Matters: At least two instances:
- Eddie wants to enroll in a college where athletics is valued over academics, and plans to forsake his studies for a NBA-worthy basketball career. That is, until he meets a supermarket stockboy/bagboy who was a former college standout ... until suffering a career-ending injury, after which his illiteracy is exposed.
- 3J, the Cousin Oliver of Family Matters, was introduced in an episode where Urkel is his Big Brother (an episode paying homage to the organization).
- One of Wesley's new friends on Mr. Belvedere pays him to write his book reports, finally admitting that he never learned to read because his family moved around a lot. Wesley starts teaching him, but he starts going to remedial classes by the end of the episode.
- In an episode of The Drew Carey Show which spoofed cheap attempts to win an Emmy, Drew had to single-handedly discover a cure for Kate's terminal illness. The only problem is, he never learned to read.
- Used several times on Little House on the Prairie due to its being set in the 19th century (and to champion reading programs, because of continued illiteracy):
- In an early first-season episode, Laura was ashamed at how poorly she could write and pretended to recite a poem she'd written about her Ma, but her written words didn't match what she said. (This was also in part because Nellie Olesen, whom she had just met, had cruelly mocked her when it was apparent to her she couldn't read or write.) When Caroline found out, she turned this into a heartwarming moment between mother and daughter.
- Another first-season episode sees Caroline take a substitute teaching job at the school, and the children cruelly mock a teenager when he cannot intelligently answer the questions or read what was on the blackboard. Caroline calls off school for several days while she privately tutors the lad.
- Mr. Edwards gives two examples of this, then subverts it:
- In an early episode, he wants to date the lady who works at the post office, so he sends himself letters addressed to himself from a fictional woman. Because he can't read, the letters are blank.
- After he's married and adopts the woman's kids, he doesn't want his kids to know he can't read, though nearly everyone else, even Mary and Laura, knows. John Jr. (the eldest of Mr. Edwards' sons) finds this out, but only after Edwards is attacked and nearly killed by a grizzly bear.
- In later episodes, he presumably learns to read as if he'd never had a problem. He's seen reading all sorts of things, including a bedtime story to a monkey.
- In the fourth-season episode "Whisper Country," a secretly illiterate female preacher tries to run Mary out of her teaching job in a remote farming community. When the woman continually misquotes the Bible and gives completely incorrect teachings, Mary suspects the woman's secret and challenges her to show her the verse to back her claims. The woman, in a fit of rage, holds up her Bible (thinking it held a magical power that would kill Mary), but when the tactic failed, the woman admitted she could not read.
- Averted in the 1978 episode "Harriet's Happenings." In an episode where Mrs. Olesen helps her publishing cousin start a newspaper in Walnut Grove, the fountain of misinformation starts a gossip column. After Nellie loses a spelling bee contest to the son of German immigrants, Mrs. Olesen — in a fit of ego and one-upmanship — sarcastically congratulates the winner and reveals his parents are illiterate. True, the boy's folks could not read English ... but they were fluent in reading German, something Charles eventually exposes in the episode's climatic scene, where he denounces the newspaper as "yellow journalism".
- None of the Norsemen in Vikings know how to read or write, which is Truth in Television since Real Life Vikings were illiterate and unable to record their own history, especially in the earlier years of paganism. The only main character who can do either is Athelstan, but he's also a very well-educated Anglo-Saxon monk from Christian England, not pagan Scandinavia like the Vikings.
- Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman found that several citizens of the town—Jake, Hank, Myra—couldn't read, though they all learned at some point in the show's run.
- Nog on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine doesn't learn to read until Jake, who's younger, teaches him. He manages to get into Starfleet Academy a few years later with only about two years of semi-formal schooling.
- Although it's more likely that Jake is teaching him how to read human script, since Ferengi has its own system of writing.
- In The Magnificent Seven TV series, one episode did this for tracker Vin Tanner.
- There was an episode of The Facts of Life where Tootie's boyfriend turns out to be illiterate.
- In an episode of 30 Rock, Liz and Pete suspected that Tracy might be illiterate. He wasn't, but he played along to get out of work.
- Episode of The Cosby Show where Sammy Davis, Jr. played the grandfather of one of Cliff's patients. Claire tricked him into revealing his illiteracy. Later, he enrolled in classes so that he could read to his great-granddaughter.
- Sundance from Thunderstone is totally illiterate, which he reveals when his peace offering to Noah for mistreating him is to ask Noah to teach him to read. This is implied to be a rarity even in Haven, as other characters can occasionally be seen reading books or writing notes with no difficulties.
- In Ocean Girl, the son of ORCA's head woman was revealed to be illiterate because he was dyslexic. Mike was a jerk who used his dyslexia to get out of things, until Neri helped him learn to read. Then he turned good.
- On Mama's Family, Mama and Iola get fed up with the crappy job their church lady president is doing and plan to impeach her...until Mama discovers that it's because she can't read.
- In an episode of Highway To Heaven, Jonathan (the angel) discovers a co-worker couldn't read when he sends the guy into a storeroom to get a box of pies. Of course, Jonathan should have also guessed the guy was an idiot because there were two boxes of pies, and the guy didn't open either to see what was inside. Instead, he left the storeroom and came up with some excuse for why he couldn't retrieve them.
- Another episode had Jonathan helping a young man who had been a star basketball player in high school, but his illiteracy was exposed when he became injured and he couldn't stay in college. He takes a job at an after-school program teaching basketball and the kids tell him about their reading teacher when he confesses that he can't read. She helps him learn to read and they begin dating.
- Matt Parkman in Heroes can't read due to his dyslexia, although this does not seem to hamper his detective skills at all. He sucks at Scrabble though.
- Seth from Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide is revealed to be illiterate when his girlfriend catches him giving sports tickets to nerds in exchange for them doing his homework, because he, well, can't. The episode ends with, you guessed it, Seth studying to learn how to read. Yay tropes.
- Salvatore, one of the contestants on the seventh season of Hell's Kitchen, revealed in one episode that he never learned to read. He was assigned to take the orders from the patrons, but because he couldn't read, he also couldn't write intelligibly. Ramsay started to tear the mickey out of him but was pulled up short when Salvatore revealed that after immigrating to America, he took a job to help support his family instead of going to school.
- Parodied in Will & Grace when Grace panics when her boyfriend Nathan is less excited about her birthday gift of a book than Karen's gift of a motorcycle. He solemnly informs her that he can't read, and she immediately softens and apologizes, to which he replies "I can read! You've seen me read!"
- Butch Lesbian "Walter" from German TV series Hinter Gittern - der Frauenknast (English: "Behind bars - The Women's Prison").
- Good Times: Unclear. In one of her criticisms of the series, Esther Rolle complained about over-emphasizing the character of J.J., whom Rolle (in a 1975 interview with Ebony magazine) contended was illiterate but yet was popular among audiences for his clownish antics. In actuality, it had never been explicitly mentioned whether or how well J.J. could read, although several episodes prior to 1977 revolved around his academic struggles.
- In an early episode of Saved by the Bell (back when it was still called Good Morning Miss Bliss), a bully is revealed to be illiterate, which is why he forced others to do his homework.
- On Charles in Charge one of Charles' friends is revealed to be illiterate when a fire breaks out and he can't read the instructions for a fire extinguisher.
- Charlie on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is on the fringe of this trope. When under pressure, he can scrawl out basic English, and seems to be able to read basic words, but when he writes for himself, it's a secret, illegible script.
"Goddammit Charlie, your illiteracy has screwed us again!"
- Also, a subversion. The Gang has no interest in helping Charlie learn how to read or write, and neither does he.
- Lex on The Tribe is an arrogant, tough, streetwise character... who never learned to read or write beyond a very low grade school level. The series implied several times that he had Dyslexia. It's a major source of insecurity for him, and he does try to improve his skills more than once.
- In The Sharp End, Carmichael is illiterate, and Celia Forrest (his employer) uses a tape recorder to provide him with his daily to do list.
- On True Blood, Sam's teenage brother Tommy never learned to read because his parents were constantly on the move and exploited his Animorphism to win dogfighting matches to support themselves, so he never went to school and they weren't concerned with educating him themselves (Sam himself was put up for adoption and had a normal childhood until his powers developed). He does learn to read during the Time Skip between seasons 3 and 4, and in a touch of realism, is shown to still have trouble with silent letters and has to sound out the words while writing.
- In The Waltons episode, "The Scholar," an illiterate but proudly self-sufficient African-America, Verda Grant, woman asks John-Boy to help her learn to read in secret. The boy is proud to help, but his youngest sister spots them and inadvertently uses their exposes them to her teacher to excuse why she is not getting her homework done. When the teacher offers to help the woman herself, Verda assumes John-Boy betrayed her. Eventually the truth is found out and the two reconcile.
- Porridge: "Bunny" Warren claims to be in prison because he could not read the sign: "Warning, Burglar Alarm". He also gets Fletcher to read him letters from his wife. It is strongly implied that he is actually dyslexic.
- Hollyoaks: Patrick Blake discovered Maxine to be illiterate, and taught her to read (leading to their long-running Domestic Abuse storyline.)
- Monk had a suspect who was a Mexican immigrant and tried to hide the fact that he couldn't read. His illiteracy ended up being a good thing as the real killer had avoided escaping through a door after the murder because there was a sign on it that said an alarm would sound if it was opened.
- Saturday Night Live: In the episode hosted by Jack Black just before the opening of King Kong (2005) Black sings a song he wrote about the film, admitting during the song that he never read the script because "it gets in the way / of my acting process which I've carefully honed / and also I don't know how to read."
- In an episode of Corner Gas, Lacey thinks Oscar doesn't know how to read due to a Sustained Misunderstanding.
Lacey: What if he's functionally illiterate?
Wanda: He's not illiterate. He's barely functional. He's non-functionally literate.
- Ik Mik Loreland: The troll-like Karbonkel is the only inhabitant of Loria who cannot read. When Mik tries to teach him, he gets so angry that he curses it to become the illiterate country of Loreland and scatters the letters of the alphabet across different places.
- The woman to whom Bob Dylan is singing in "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)" can't read books. Like her mother and sisters, she can read the stars.
- Country singer Paul Overstreet once recorded a song called "Johnny Can't Read," a song that championed literacy programs.
- The get-away driver played by Noel Fielding in the music video for Blue Song by Mint Royale can't read clocks at the very least, so he listens to CDs in the car that are the same length as the time the bank robbers need him to wait. When the song ends, he knows to start the car.
- The Mark & Brian Radio Program had as a recurring sketch of Brian as an out of work voice over guy. He's when just speaking to someone. But the moment he starts reading from the script he mangles the words horribly and inevitably sets his co-stars into Corpsing.
This month, we're proud to offer the 1960 Oscar winning film Spar-tackus. Spar-tackus, from leggendary director Stanley Kubbrick, is the story of a glad-ai-ator who leads a violent revolt against the Romulan empire. Starring Kirk Deglaze, Laurence Oliviary, and Tony Curtis. It will make you stand up and say "I am Spar-tack-us."
- Adventures in Odyssey had the episode "Cousin Albert" were Lucy discovers that her basketball star cousin Albert cannot read. Albert says that basketball is all he ever wanted and that he doesn't need to learn how to read. He changes his mind after he was beaten in a one-on-one game with the school janitor who also couldn't read.
- The Barbarian class of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons has this trope as one of the quirks of the class. In order to be able to read and write, a barbarian must either spend two skill points on "Literacy" or take a level in another class. The reason for the illiteracy varies, such as whatever society he came from having an oral tradition or something similar, but the barbarian entering civilization will have a few problems.
- Basic D&D has ability to read based on the INT score. Characters with an int below 6 are illiterate, and those below 9 can handle simple words.
- GURPS acknowledges that while this is more of a skill, it can be a serious advantage in low tech levels. Conversely, illiteracy is a serious disadvantage in high tech levels.
- Keeping the general populace illiterate is a control method implemented by the Coalition States in Rifts. Even high-ranking members of the military are not literate by default. The standard "Dead Boy" armor suit can read aloud written text to its wearer.
- In Ironclaw only Mages and a few other careers like Dilettante (one of two playable forms of nobleman) are automatically literate.
- In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, being a local vagrant has never learned to read. The Widow Douglas takes pains to teach him, however, and by the end of the play, he can read at least a little and is proud of it.
- In the stage version of Beauty and the Beast, it's revealed that the Beast only has rudimentary reading skills (at best) and is embarrassed by it. When a song from this version, "Human Again", was animated for the IMAX version of the original film (where it had been a Cut Song), this detail was included in a short dialogue scene. Of course, if you know the film, you know that Belle is a voracious reader. So this a setup for heartwarming scene of Belle reading to the Beast, leading him to talk about how he never knew how reading could take him away from who and what he is.
Beast: I never knew books could do that.Belle: Do what?Beast: Take me away from this place, make me forget for a little while.Belle: Forget?Beast: Who I... what I am.
- This sets off the main plot of Gutenberg! The Musical, as the town's inability to read helps spur Gutenberg to invent the printing press. Most notably, a woman's inability read accidentally kills her child (she mistakes jelly beans for medicine. It's that kind of musical).
- In The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Molly grows up on a farm just as illiterate as her father and her brothers. However, she has certain ambitions, and the one that begins the refrain of her theme song is, "I'm goan' to learn to read and write."
- The Apple ][ game Freedom! has a slave trying to escape from the American South. If the player character is illiterate, signs will be displayed with unintelligible characters.
- Nino from Fire Emblem 7, who learned to use magic tomes by watching Sonia and imitating her chants (something that gets her a lot of respect from fellow mage and potential love interest Erk). Her supports with Canas has him teaching her how to read.
- Sissel from Ghost Trick, which almost leads to some complications early on in the plot. Apparently, it's because of his Ghost Amnesia. Except it's not. He really Never Learned to Read, because he was a cat when he was still alive.
- Books in Yggdra Union can only be used by "the literate" (an in-game item condition), Nietzsche and Milanor are greyed out in selection. Guess what that meant?
- In Red Dead Redemption the main character John Marston's wife Abigail Marston admits that she's illiterate. At one point she suspects that her husband has received a love letter from another woman. Unable to read it herself she asks John to read it for her.
- In Dragon Age II, Hawke can make a gift of a book to Fenris, prompting him to admit that - thanks to his background as an escaped slave - he's never had the opportunity to learn how to read. Hawke can offer to teach him, if the player chooses.
- Player characters in Ancient Domains of Mystery may start the game illiterate, depending on the chosen class, race and Learning stat.
- In Kid Icarus: Uprising, Pit, upon seemingly falling to his doom claims to have never learned to read.
- In the opening chapter of Dragon Quest V, the hero is only 6 years old and can't read well. The few times he is able to read something, he has an older friend with him. This doesn't apply in later chapters, though, and you can go back and reread several signs you couldn't when you were young.
- In Crash Tag Team Racing, one of the many quotes that Crunch Bandicoot says upon having his vehicle destroyed in a race is a claim that he never learned to read.
- The Bizarre Adventures Of Woodruff And The Schnibble: Woodruff, having literally just left infancy, doesn't know how to read at the start of the game. One of your first tasks is learning how.
- Terinu is unable to read because his species was genetically uplifted to be a Slave Race, so their built dyslexia was considered a security measure. So far he's managed to hide the fact from his friends.
- Karate Bears can't exactly read the menu either
- Due to her being a standard Barbarian Hero, Tiffany from Exiern never learned to read, but is more or less okay with it. It is Played for Laughs though when it comes to her choice of attire though. And Played for Drama when she doesn't realise a voiceless character is writing "Get help" which Tiffany interprets as "I have magic runes".
- Minmax from Goblins traded in his literacy (as well as other basic functioning skills) for more fighting abilities.
- Gunnora from Alfdis And Gunnora never learned to read, but is trying to teach herself in her spare time. This becomes somewhat significant when Alfdis sends her a written message. She's very upset when Alfdis's father uses it as an excuse not to hire her.
- Lelouch, Suzaku and Kallen are unable to read in Code MENT, Played for Laughs. Though Lelouch has shown the ability to write (it's Japanese, so he can't read kanji but can write hiragana or katakana (we're guessing)).
- Tyce from Deagle Nation is extremely close to this trope. While he might be able to actually read, nearly every single word he's typed since his first appearance is misspelled and grammatically incorrect to the point of absurdity.
im hi on pnt thinur cz obeme is nug ##bith #teeroraost go bk 2 furgazin qeeeermom bic 4 nt by myy raceein cars @ stor
- Venturian Tale: Johnny Ghost can't read, apparently. (Not that it affects anything.)
- The Simpsons:
Blackbeard: Ar, tis some kind of treasure map!Benedict Arnold Snatches photo) You idiot, you can't read!Blackbeard: My debauchery was my way of compensating!
- In a Season 1 episode, Krusty the Clown on is cleared of a robbery in part because of his revealed illiteracy. In light of later information about him, it's kind of a Fridge Logic moment - Krusty is supposed to be the son of a Rabbi who was being molded for that career, so it's hard to believe he would be illiterate. In fairness, he did have a minimal reading level (and he is a drug addict), which makes this somewhat more realistic. In one of the DVD episode commentaries, the makers mention that they decided to leave out this character trait after a while, seeing as how it really did not make sense that Krusty could not read and yet do the things he does.
- In one episode, Homer befriends Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. They ask him not to tell anyone that they're in town, and he agrees as long as they keep his secret: he can't read. It's never mentioned again, and Baldwin lampshades it by pointing out that Homer just read the card on a gift basket (Homer says he recognized the logo), so this was probably a one-off joke (or an oblique reference to a scene from the movie Wayne's World in which Wayne tells a girl that he can't read so he can gain her sympathies).
- In one book on the series, one writer mentions how, during the story conference, they threw around moments throughout the series in which Homer was shown reading, and ultimately decided to go with Rule of Funny.
- Parodied in the Christmas Episode featuring Funzo. Springfield Elementary was closed due to lack of funds. The kids put on a play for Mr. Burns showing that without the school, the kids would not be able to read and showed various disasters that could befall him if he didn't give the money. He refused to give them the money and Kid First Industries stepped in.
- In his bizarre self-presentation, Neil Gaiman is the Butt Monkey of a team of book authors/con artists, but ultimately reveals himself to be a Diabolical Mastermind and puts his name on the book they publish. He then reveals that he's never learned to read (to imply that all of his previous novels were the result of a similar con).
- Played for laughs in "Treehouse of Horror IV", when Marge gives the Jury of the Damned her wedding picture and tells them to look at the back:
- Parodied in an early South Park where Officer Barbrady is unable to solve the mystery of the chicken-molesting menace because he can't read the clues. Barbrady eventually does learn to read, and discovers that the criminal is...a bookmobile driver, who has been committing these crimes as a Zany Scheme to get Barbrady to lean how to read. The next book he gives Barbrady is Atlas Shrugged, which causes Barbrady to swear off reading forever.
- It's fairly understandable that Broadway and Hudson in Gargoyles never learned to read, as they aren't human and come from a society where reading wasn't important. Hudson feels shame for it, but Broadway, in true "ignorance is bliss" style, brags that he has no need for literacy. Not only was their Very Special Episode done better than usual, but it actually does affect later episodes, when the two are seen practicing reading, seeking help from others, or struggling to read. In the last canon episode, Broadway's reading has improved enough that he's seen reading Shakespearean poetry to impress his girlfriend, Angela.
- There's also Hakon, again pretty understandable since he's from the early 11th century, too. On the other hand, he's glad of it, rather than neutral—it means the Magus's spellbook has no effect when he looks upon its pages!
- Mr. Kokoshka in Hey Arnold!, he doesn't seem to mind, until he does and asks Arnold for help.
- Parodied in Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. Harvey, a lawyer and able to read, goes to prison. Later he's shown learning to read a children's book and having a Golden Moment when he succeeds. Six months later we see him having the exact same moment, though this time reading Penthouse forum.
- "Death by Chocolate" has Yogi Bear reveal that he and Boo-Boo are illiterate during his testimony.
- Drawn Together has Foxxy Love taking and failing her Reading 101 test.
- Jem featured an episode where it was revealed Roxy was illiterate. She ends up beginning to learn to read at the end.
- An episode of Tiny Toon Adventures called "Why Dizzy Can't Read" revealed that Dizzy Devil was illiterate. Babs makes a reference to a certain episode of Facts of Life.
- There was an episode of Captain Planet where a villain tries to trick an illiterate worker into spraying poison instead of fertilizer by switching his bags, since he wouldn't be able to tell them apart. The worker was Too Dumb to Live, though. Earlier, he tries to drink a whole bottle of medicine. When his friend hurriedly warns him that's dangerous, he protests that he couldn't read the instructions, so how was he supposed to know he shouldn't have done that.
- A variation is seen in Metalocalypse, where it is revealed that neither Toki nor Skwisgaar can read music (Skwisgaar in particular claims to have music dyslexia), which you'd think is a big deal when you play in the most popular band in the history of the world.
- Actually such a thing is quite possible. Most rock and other popular music performers don't use or need sheet music. They write music by jamming and learn by ear. It's not common as it used to be though. Many of the great Blues musicians of the '20s and '30s couldn't read at all, let alone read sheet music.
- Mr. Smarty Smarts from Spliced is illiterate, despite being an evil genius. He is later shown struggling to read a children's book. As with all things on Spliced, it's Played for Laughs.
- In an episode of The Raccoons Bert befriends a hermit who was about to be thrown out of his swamp home. He reveals to Bert that he cannot read, which is how he didn't know that the papers left by his father were property deeds, which make him the legal owner of the swamp.
- In one episode of Conan the Adventurer, Conan admits that he never learned how to read.
- Played for Laughs in Sym-Bionic Titan which features a character on a Show Within a Show making out with a girl, pausing to tearfully confess that he cannot read, then continue to make out. It implied to be part of a Very Special Episode In-Universe.
- From the Batman Beyond episode "Joyride":
Coe: It is a U.F.O., isn't it?
Scab: Wake up, Coe! All the writing's in English.
Coe: You can read?!
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Toph, being blind in a world without anything like Braille, cannot read or write. As such, Sokka's plan to forge a letter from Toph to help her reconcile with Katara falls flat.
- Knuckles in Sonic Boom cannot read. There was a joke where he attempted to read a letter, complete with putting on reading glasses, only to remember he's illiterate.
- Static discovers his former enemy-turned-ally, Rubberband Man, is dyslexic. It's a sore spot for him, given his accomplishments (he's a talented musician in addition to being a superhero). He starts to learn how to overcome his disability, which thankfully comes in handy when he has to read the instructions on how to disarm a bomb.
- On Dora the Explorer, the villain in "Dora's Royal Rescue" never learned to read and thus is trying to stop everyone else from reading. In the end, Don Quixote agrees to teach him. See Reading Is Cool Aesop below.
- This map◊ from The Other Wiki's article on literacy shows the percentages of countries' populations that are functionally literate. Fortunately, the description mentions that some of the countries in the red have improved a bit since the map was made.
- The Mongols and Vikings are well-known for this, largely due to the fact that historians know very little about their true cultures and values because of their inability to record their own histories. The vast majority of information we have about them was written by Christians and Muslims, both of whom were terrified and disgusted by these barbarian invaders, which makes the actual beliefs and practices of the Mongols and pagan Vikings difficult to understand or even extrapolate on.
- While the trope itself has becoming somewhat cliched, there are obviously people in real life for which this is true. Also worth considering are cases where someone is dyslexic, and thus has a situation where although they are attending school and being taught literacy, it eludes them until the condition is identified.
- That said, a shockingly high percent of people in the US are functionally illiterate. That is, they can read just barely enough to get by but anything more is beyond them.
- Lance Henriksen is one particularly famous example - he dropped out of school before sixth grade and was illiterate until the age of 30, when he started acting and taught himself to read his scripts.
- There was a widely successful Junior-Major league hockey coach in Quebec who revealed he was illiterate when he retired.
- American Idol Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino was functionally illiterate for years into her performing career; she would perform songs from memory and would make excuses such as being "Southern" when faced with dense materials like contracts.
- Maria Teresa "Mariettina" Goretti was said to be illiterate, which wasn't very uncommon in the times and place she lived (rural Italy in the very early nineteenth century). She allegedly still gained the knowledge she needed to get the Holy Communion purely by hearing and memorising what the local Passionist priests taught her.
- It's actually a kind-of common backstory among Christian saints, specially those who come from low-class backgrounds. Again, understandable due to the lack of advance in proper education until a relatively short time ago.
- Brazilian eco-martyr Chico Mendes was illiterate until the age of 18, having been deliberately kept so by the owner of the plantation he worked on, in an attempt to prevent him from learning what exploitation meant.
- This trope was the norm for most of the world until the Industrial Revolution. Most people worked in jobs in which literacy wasn't necessary, which took up so much time that they didn't have the leisure time needed to pick up an unnecessary skill. Up until the invention of the printing press, this was compounded by the fact that there simply wasn't much reading material available. The single largest group of people with the time and inclination to learn to read in Medieval and Renaissance times was the clergy. This is why bookkeepers are sometimes known as clerks (a word derived from cleric).
- Adam Carolla was functionally illiterate most of his life. When he started working at KROQ radio when he first got his break into showbiz, he forced himself to learn to read because he couldn't read copy off the cuff and got tired of having to memorize everything for hours ahead of time.
- In Antebellum America, plantation owners generally tried to keep their black slaves illiterate, lest they get their hands on abolitionist publications. Some states even passed laws against teaching slaves to read.
- Illiteracy was widespread in Tsarist Russia, as you'd expect of a backwards, feudal society where most people were peasants. At the time of the communist revolution in 1917, only twenty-four percent of Russians could read. In response, the Bolsheviks began the Likbez campaign in 1919. By the 1950s, illiteracy had effectively been eradicated from the Soviet Union.
- In a zig-zag example, in the obscenely poor country of North Korea, the requirement for being classed as literate is the ability to write the words "Kim Jong Il", the Eternal President, and your own name. Consequently North Korea has a 99.9% rate of literacy; highest in the world.