Follow TV Tropes


Never Learned to Read

Go To

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 their 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.

Stories set in an era prior to that (or where public education doesn't exist) may realistically have illiteracy as the norm. Violations of that fall under Medieval Universal Literacy.

May very well lead to a "Reading Is Cool" Aesop. See also Hates Reading.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • 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).
  • Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba: Inosuke admits that he never learned how to read or write. This is because he grew up in the mountains by himself after his mother was killed by the demon Doma and he was raised by a wild boar.
    • The Wind Hashira, Sanemi Shinazugawa, can read, but doesn’t know how to write.
  • Fairy Tail: A Zig-Zagging Trope as the anime added some scenes that weren’t in the manga that may or may not contradict each other. Both have a backstory of Natsu Dragneel being a Wild Child raised in the forest by the dragon Igneel who taught him how to read, write, hunt, cook, and use fire magic before he disappeared when Natsu was a teenager. However in episode 27 the anime added a Flashback of Natsu’s first introduction to the guild which shows him having trouble reading everything except the reward on the job listing. This leads him to tearfully admit that most of his reading vocabulary consists of only food related words when the other kids laugh at his inability to read. Erza overhearing this states that there is nothing to be ashamed of before she offers to personally teach him. Natsu however rejects the offer leading Erza to grab him by his hair and drag him to where she would expand his vocabulary for the next three days without letting him sleep or eat. In conclusion this trope is averted in the manga due to Igneel’s teaching and downplayed before being subverted due to Erza’s teaching.
  • Girls' Last Tour: Yuuri never learnt how to read even phonetic Japanese, whereas Chito can both read and write it, but can't read kanji. Living in the post-apocalypse makes this rather excusable.
  • Katri, Girl of the Meadows: Katri, being a nine-year-old who's lived on a rural Finnish farm all her life, is this. She quickly learns to read and write in Räikkölä thanks to Martti and Akki.
  • Kemono Friends: Friends are physically incapable of learning to read. This makes the literacy of the human characters a subject of interest to them.
  • Zigzagged in Kirby: Right Back at Ya!. "A Novel Approach" establishes that King Dedede can't read, despite being able to read cook books and letters in previous episodes. Dedede justifies this by saying he just prefers books with pictures.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans: A large number of the boys in CGS/Tekkadan, including the protagonist Mikazuki, fit in here 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.
  • 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.
  • Pokémon: The franchise has two examples with both girls being raised in two vastly different environments, one being a rural forested area and the other being a major urban city, but share a common trait of both being illiterate but not dumb.
    • Pokémon Adventures: Played with. It's 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 mocks her and lectures 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 has someone read the questions for her, she ends up the first person ever to score a perfect mark on Roxanne's test.
  • Rurouni Kenshin: During the Hokkaido Arc, two of Kenshin and Kaoru's new protegés (Ashitaro and Asahi) can barely read. This brings them BIG trouble later: Asahi thought that gathering a certain quantity of money would be enough to purchase her freedom, but the real price was much higher and her abusive owner not only didn't dissuade her but wanted to sell her off to a far worse guy. When Ashitaro tried to defend her, he couldn't read the written contracts either and that led to a massive fight that Kenshin had to break up. Since the third protegé (Alan) is literate, Ashitaro asks him to teach Asahi how to do it, and Alan happily accepts on the condition that Ashitaro should learn too.
  • Samurai Champloo: Played for laughs in one episode 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 19-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.
  • Tomorrow's Joe: Joe Yabuki is a former Street Urchin who never went to school and is barely literate. This bites him hard in the ass when he wants to get a boxing license and it's time for the written exams...

  • In one of his stand-ups, Chris Rock talked about how American slaves weren't allowed to learn how to read, which must have led 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?!

    Comic Books 
  • The DCU:
    • 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 8. That the only thing wrong with her brain is her difficulty with language is a sign of nothing short of Heroic Willpower.
    • Scare Tactics (DC Comics): Fang, coming from an isolated clan of werewolves in Appalachia, is semi-literate at best. Slither offers to help him improve his reading.
    • Sovereign Seven: Network never learned to read because she came from a world of telepathy, and any skills she needs she "borrows" from those around her. Without her telepathy, she can't even speak, as she only knows that skill from borrowing it from others. Network lives in perpetual fear of being made "headblind".
  • Dragon Age:
    • Magekiller: Marius, much like Fenris in Dragon Age II below, is mostly illiterate due to being a former slave and relies on Tessa to read to him.
  • The 100th issue of Groo the Wanderer (Marvel run) is about Groo learning to read.
  • As in the original cartoon, Roxy from Jem and the Holograms (IDW) is mostly illiterate. This is addressed in Misfits #4, where Roxy reveals in a flashback that she's always had a hard time but things just went so fast she couldn't keep up and just started pretending she could read. She's tried many times to learn but just can't.
  • Marvel Universe:
    • X-Men: It is sometimes common for mutants with physical differences or noticeable powers to not have a formal education due to Fantastic Racism of their families or their communities.
      • Excalibur: Meggan 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: 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 Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers: Roadbuster apparently never learned to read and somehow survived millions of years in spite of this handicap, as revealed in an addendum story. 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.
  • In The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers, there was a backup 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.

    Comic Strips 
  • The eponymous Crankshaft. He was revealed to be illiterate during the strip and learned to read with help from the students who rode in his bus.

    Fan Works 
  • The Bridge: While most of the Kaiju have received information about the human world in some way, Godzilla Junior was never taught how to read. He is later given lessons, which let him read slowly.
Kill la Kill
  • Teaching Ryuuko to read and spell is the subject of chapter 27 of Cellar Secrets, as by means of being a 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.
  • In chapter 9 of Lost, Found, this is downplayed, as Ryuuko can read and does read but wasn't allowed to by the "orphanage" workers, it's just that she can't write, probably because she hasn't learned how to.
Kingdom Hearts
  • Kingdom Hearts Ψ: The Seeker of Darkness: Vanitas was prevented from learning to read or a number of other skills (such as Cure spells) to keep him dependent on Xehanort. When Aqua finds out, she volunteers to teach him, deciding that her desire to spite Xehanort outweighs her own hatred of Vanitas.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Splatoon 2
  • In I've Got Your Back, Marina can read in her native language, but she can't read Squidish.

    Films — Animation 
  • Beauty and the Beast:
    • In the 2002 updated version, the song "Human Again" is added from the stage play, including a scene in which Beast admits that he had once learned to read, a little, but it's been so long that he doesn't know how anymore, prompting Belle to teach him how to again.
    • Played with in Gaston's case. Though Lefou is shown in the stage version of "Gaston" struggling to spell a word as simple as Gaston's name (something carried over to the live-action adaptation; see below), the man himself gets only one moment of possible illiteracy, when Belle shows him her new book and he scoffs, "How can you read this? There's no pictures!" It's left ambiguous if he has no concept of words, or if he's never seen a book without pictures before.
  • The Breadwinner: This trope is common in which it is set in Afghanistan. When Parvana/"Aatish" and/or her father are in the market selling wares they also advertise themselves as able to read/write letters for any illiterate passersby. This is how she meets Razaq.
  • Eight Crazy Nights: At one point when Whitey is getting on his nerves, Davey spells out “Bite Me” with French fries, Whitey replies “Jokes on you son, I can’t read”.
  • The Incredibles: In the special edition DVD, Thunderhead mentions during his attempt to make a stay-in-school PSA that he never learned to read and that he hoped the kids had "better teachers than I had", implying he had a learning disability and the teachers gave up on him.
  • Inside Out: Bing Bong can't read at all aside from identifying letters, which gets him, Joy, and Sadness into trouble when he leads them into an area that says "Danger" which he insists is a shortcut. Justified because he is an imaginary friend that Riley created when she was a toddler, before she could read.
  • Klaus (2019): The postmaster Jesper convinces the local children to write letters to Klaus asking him to make them toys, so that he can deliver them and keep his job, except several of the kids don't know how to write. They show up at the schoolhouse-turned-fish market and ask Alva, the burned-out teacher-turned-fishmonger, to teach them. Alva grudgingly agrees, but the first girl's awe at having written her own name makes the other kids eager to write theirs as well, and Alva's passion for teaching returns.
  • The Sword in the Stone: When Archimedes instructs Wart (AKA Arthur Pendragon) to read a large stack of books, Wart reveals he'd never learned how to read or write (which was the norm in that era), prompting Archimedes to start teaching him how to do so.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • Anne of the Indies: Captain Providence can read charts by identifying coastlines, depth marks, etc., but is otherwise illiterate; relying on Dr. Jameson to read and write for her. (It's implied that Jameson might be the only member of her crew who can read.) Leads to a situation where Jameson writes a very elegant and polite 'I Have Your Wife' note on Anne's behalf.
  • 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.
  • Beauty and the Beast (2017): Played for Laughs. It's noted that many extras can't read, as was common during the time period. The end of "Gaston" contains this gem.
    Everyone: There's just one guy in town who's got all of it down...
    Lefou: And his name's G-A-S-T... I believe there's another "T"... It just occurred to me that I'm illiterate and I've never actually had to spell it out loud before...
    Everyone: Gaston!
  • Braveheart: Murron tells William Wallace that she never learned to read, something that wasn't abnormal in the Scottish highlands in the 13th century.
  • Color Me Perfect: The mentally disabled woman Dina never had any formal education. Her main reason for signing up for the intelligence-boosting gene therapy is that the scientists promise that she'll be taught to read.
  • Cool Hand Luke: Chain gang big man Dragline doesn't know how to read. He'll hand over letters and other reading material for his fellow prisoners to read to him.
  • 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 truck 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.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo (2002): At the start of the film, Dantes is illiterate (a change from the book, where he could read). One of the first things he wants to learn from Abbe Faria is how to read and write.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Since the Wudang school of martial arts refused to admit women, master thief Jade Fox stole their instruction manual, but since she can't read, she has only been able to study the diagrams. Her secret protégé Jen, on the other hand, is a young noblewoman who Surpassed the Teacher because she could actually read the book. This leads to tensions between the women as Jade comes to envy Jen's progress.
  • Danny the Dog: Danny was literally kept as a wild animal despite being human, and as such never learned any civilized skills, reading among them.
  • The Dark Crystal: Kira the Gelfling, despite being fluent in the Gelfling and Podling languages and even able to talk to animals, has never even heard of reading. Jen's lack of difficulty explaining the concept implies that this might be common in the Dark Crystal universe, which is implied again in the TV prequel when a Skeksis is genuinely impressed that a very upper-class Gelfling is literate.
    Kira: What's writing?
    Jen: Words that stay.
  • Driving Miss Daisy: "Hoke" 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 still a plot point in the 1981 made-for-TV movie "The Pride of Jesse Hallam". The title character has a driver's license despite being illiterate.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Played for Laughs. Draco Malfoy's line was ad-libbed during rehearsal by Tom Felton, and they kept it. His tone isn't sarcastic or mocking either, it's one of genuine surprise.
    Draco: Why are you wearing glasses?
    Harry disguised as Goyle: Oh, um, reading.
    Draco: Reading? (Beat) I didn't know you could read...
  • How Funny (This Country Is): The pickpocket kids cannot read, since for them, pickpocketing is the only skills that they ever need to have; so Muluk has Samsul teach them how as part of his plan to educate them. When Glen's gang protest, their boss Jarot reminds Glen that time he once ran away from a mob to a police station because he couldn't read the sign.
  • i am sam: Sam can't read anything beyond simple picture books, which comes back to bite him when his daughter Lucy has to be one reading to him.
  • Jodhaa Akbar: True to history, the Moghul emperor Akbar never learned to read or write; a childhood dominated by martial activity and becoming ruler at age 13 didn't allow the time for much scholarly development.
  • A League of Their Own: Shirley Baker, which leads to a hilarious moment when former burlesque dancer Mae takes it upon herself to teach her how to read:
    Shirley: Her. M — mi — mil — mil — milky, milky. White, white. Milky white...buh-buh—breasts.
    Evelyn: Mae, what are you giving her to read?!
    Mae: Oh, what difference does it make? She's reading, okay?
  • Melanie: This 1982 Canadian film is a quietly well-acted tale of an illiterate young woman (Glynnis O'Connor) in rural Arkansas whose estranged and abusive husband Carl (Don Johnson) kidnaps their son to Los Angeles. Melanie follows by bus, getting people to read things for her by saying she's "lost her glasses." Staying with her friend Rhonda (Trudy Young) and Rhonda's friend Rick (Burt Cummings), a down-and-out country musician who falls in love with her, and assisted by Rick's lawyer Walter (Paul Sorvino), she's determined to learn to read and find work so she can get permanent custody.
  • 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.
  • Nanny McPhee: Evangeline - the Brown family's scullery maid and later stepmother to Mr. Brown's seven children - apparently didn't learn to read as a child. When the story opens, Lily Brown is teaching her how, and Evangeline progresses greatly while under the tutelage of Lady Adelaide Stitch, Mr. Brown's aunt-by-marriage.
  • The Piano: George Baines, a forester and retired sailor, is illiterate.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: Ragetti insists he should "get credit for tryin'" to read the Bible.
  • The Principal: Ms. Orozco is giving Raymi after-school tutoring because it turns out that he can't 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.
  • The Professional: Subverted with Lèon, who can barely read English, partially because he’s from another country and his unspecified mental disorder, Mathilda has to sign papers for him and slowly teaches him throughout the movie.
  • 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.
  • Salvatore Giuliano: Illiteracy is common in 1940's Sicily. One shepherd who signs a statement with an X later claims that he didn't sign it, saying that all X's look alike.
  • Spartacus: The title character never learned to read due to being born into slavery which was common in the Roman Republic. When Spartacus goes to negotiate a deal with pirates for use of their ships to leave Rome behind forever, their envoy gives his message of the terms of the deal to Spartacus who then turns and hands it to Antoninus who can read. This clues him in that Spartacus is a slave and why Rome has been trying so hard to not let anyone find out that a slave rebellion has gotten so out of control.
  • Stanley and Iris: This is essentially the film's plot. Robert de Niro stars as illiterate cook Stanley and Jane Fonda as the widowed Iris who teaches him to read.
  • Stargate: When the Goa'uld's slaves rebelled against them on Earth, Ra banned the use of all written language from the planet Abydos in order to keep his slaves there from learning about said rebellion and rebelling as well; consequently, they no longer know how to read or write in the present day, though they can still recognize writing (when Daniel Jackson tries to write something in the sand, the village leader immediately erases it out of fear that Ra will punish them for it). Luckily, there are still writings hidden away, allowing Daniel to figure out the coordinates to get them back home.
  • 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).
  • Under the Sun: Olof is a prosperous 40-year-old farmer who never learned to read. This becomes important when Ellen leaves him a goodbye letter (it turns out she was married, and she's left to get divorced) and Erik, the third corner in the Love Triangle, maliciously mistranslates the letter when Olof gives it to him to read.
  • Wayne's World: Parodied in a scene subtitled "Oscar Clip", 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 16 years later only makes the Oscar Bait joke even funnier.
  • Women Talking: Education of girls in the Mennonite colony is very limited, so most female members can't really read or write. Thankfully, school teacher August helps them out with this when they're making plans.

    Let's Play 
  • Venturian Tale: Johnny Ghost can't read, apparently. (Not that it affects anything.)

  • 1-800-Where-R-U: One of Jess's biggest secrets, and a great shame, is that while she can play a piece after hearing it once, she never learned to read sheet music. For an aspiring musician, this is a serious handicap,note  and she takes steps to remedy it when she's found out in book 2.
  • In Animal Farm, shortly after taking control of the farm, the pigs reveal that they can already read and write, so they teach it to the other animals. The results are... rather zigzagged. The dogs can read as well as the pigs but aren't interested in reading anything other than The Seven Commandments of Animalism. Benjamin the donkey can read probably better than the pigs but chooses not to read. Muriel the goat can read newspapers. Clover has learned all of the alphabet but can't put the letters together. Poor Boxer can't get beyond A, B, C, and D, and Mollie won't spell anything other than her own name. All the others (sheep, chickens, ducks, and geese) are pretty much book-dumb.
  • Ascendance of a Bookworm: It turns out that the protagonist's adoptive brother within the nobility doesn't know how to read despite the two of them being the same age and the brother getting top-notch education on paper. Worse, it is discovered that almost all the orphans in the orphanage the protagonist is managing are better educated than her brother, with the "almost" coming from the recent arrival of a Doorstop Baby.
  • Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts: Minami Shimada is a downplayed example; she's Japanese but lived in Germany until recently, so while she can read and write in German, her reading and writing comprehension of Japanese kanji is very poor due to Heritage Disconnect, to the point that she is landed in Class F with the other protagonists. A Whole Episode Flashback in the anime adaptation reveals that on her first day at Fumizuki Academy, she even accidentally wrote her name wrong.
  • The Ballad of Black Tom: Tommy is afraid of what Ma Att will do with the full version of the occult tome, so he has Otis remove a single page. Otis is illiterate, so there's no risk that he'll Go Mad from the Revelation.
  • 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.
  • Black Dagger Brotherhood: The aptly named Blood Knight Zsadist of J.R.Ward's 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.
  • Books of the Raksura: Downplayed — Moon can read the Common Tongues but not his native Raksuran language because he was separated from the Raksura as a young child. After he joins a Raksura court, it takes years before he gets over the embarrassment enough to ask for lessons, but he's literate by the time of the fourth book.
  • Nisha from The Brotherhood of the Conch grew up as a Street Urchin and never got any education.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Boots from Cemetery Bird didn't have time to learn to read before suffering Childhood Brain Damage at age 6. Afterwards he was unable to learn, aside from a few words.
  • 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 mother's journal. Leads to a heartwarming moment in The Knife of Letting Go wherein Viola reads out her journal for him.
  • The Chronicles of Dorsa: Joslyn, who came from a desert tribe originally before becoming a soldier, is illiterate when the story starts. Tasia then teaches Joslyn herself.
  • A Court of Thorns and Roses: Feyre is borderline literate.
  • Cradle Series:
    • Yerin can't read, because her master didn't bother to teach her anything that was not directly relevant to the sacred arts. Lindon finds this a bit uncomfortable, but Yerin repeatedly jokes about it.
    • In Wintersteel, Min Shuei, the fiance of Yerin's master, is surprised and horrified that he never bothered to teach Yerin to read. She resolves to do so herself, despite the tight time limit they're under.
    • In Dreadgod, it's mentioned that Yerin had a lot of trouble with Min Shuei's instruction, between Min Shuei's teaching style and the fact that Yerin just doesn't like the woman. She only started learning for real when Lindon started teaching her, and by the time of this book she is fully literate.
  • At the start of The Crowner John Mysteries, Sir John—like many of his class—is illiterate. He is embarrassed by this, especially as his main rival (and brother-in-law) the Sheriff of Exeter is literate. Over the course of the books, John takes lessons from his clerk Thomas to become literate.
  • The Daevabad Trilogy: The daeva king Ghassan never bothered to learn to read, expecting always to have scribes at hand for that purpose. His son Ali, however, is a passionate bookworm.
  • 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.
  • Digitesque: Somewhere in the past thousand years, written language was lost completely. People aren't even aware that it's a thing, dismissing all the writing on ancient ruins as meaningless decoration. Ada manages to piece together English with the help of a subtitled video. Turns out that an artificial disease called the technophage erased all human memory and gave everyone dyslexia. While the memory loss is redundant now (as everyone contracts the disease in the womb), the dyslexia makes it impossible for anyone to puzzle out how written language works. Ada is naturally immune.
  • Dinotopia: The digest-sized book Windchaser (circa 1800s) has a Satisfied Street Rat named Hugh O'Donovan and Raymond Wilks, the son of a middle-class man, wash up on the island. After being taken in by the natives and asked to give their names and occupations, Hugh asks Raymond to put down his occupation as "entrepreneur", preemptively and defensively claiming he does know how to read and write — he just doesn't know how to spell it. Raymond confesses he can't spell it either, and they share a laugh.
  • Discworld: Brutha from the 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."
    • Cohen the Barbarian and his band are mostly illiterate. They know an X on a map is important, and they can also sign their name with one (although Sourcery claims Cohen misspells it) but that's about it.
  • In A Drowned Maiden's Hair, the deaf servant Muffet has reached middle age with almost no exposure to language of any kind. Once Maud starts teaching her to read, she learns quickly.
  • 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. 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). Subverted in Tamuli, when it's revealed that she can read in her native Styric. She pretended that she cannot read, so that her young students, who are typically not very bright, could feel superior at least in something.
  • Elizabeth Chadwick: William Marshall is a recurring character in her novels of Angevin England, and who has been called the greatest knight who ever lived by some historians. While literacy was by no means universal during the Middle Ages, a recurring point in Chadwick's work is that Marshall remained illiterate all his life.
  • The eponymous Eva Luna always wanted to learn how to read and write, so she could properly use her talent as The Storyteller. Her agitated life didn't give her the chance until she was in her mid-teens at least, and she was absolutely euphoric as she put her ideas and plots into written words.
  • 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.
  • Goblins in the Castle: Igor, as he notes at one point in Goblins on the Prowl. He's distressed by this, because it means he can't read stories to his giant friend John, who has to transcribe them into a larger volume so he can re-read them himself.
  • In Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Pellimore, the owl who would become Soren's mate, never learned to read as a child; Soren began teaching her how to read in the Ga'Hoole library, and their relationship developed from there.
  • A recurring theme in Ursula K. Le Guin's works:
    • In Always Coming Home, the Dayao people consider reading sacred, since they associate it with the act of Creation. As such, any commoner attempting to read or write is punished by either an Eye Scream or An Arm and a Leg. This causes a lot of confusion for North Owl: among the Kesh, the only ones illiterate are those physically or mentally incapable of reading.
    • The Alds from Annals of the Western Shore view reading and books as evil.
    • 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 how to speak his language, and then to read and write in it.
  • The Guns of the South: Nate Caudell (a schoolteacher before he enlisted) 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.
  • Harry Potter : In the fourth book, Albus Dumbledore once mentioned that he was not sure if his brother could read in an Out-of-Character Moment when discussing Aberforth appearing the newspapers when he was prosecuted for doing inappropriate charms on goats in a conversation with Hagrid and Harry and his friends. However, the context of this statement is ambiguous with several possible different interpretations. This can be a read as a joke meant only for Hagrid, who knows Aberforth while the kids and the readers don’t, about the general and unfair perception of the brothers as being a genius and a simpleton. This could also been seen as the type of mean joke that people make about their siblings all the time without really meaning it. Aberforth is not introduced until the end of the seventh book with Harry and his friends quickly coming to understand that the general perception of Aberforth as an idiot jealous of his brother for his genius is not true. Aberforth is sharp as a tack and is even vaguely alluded to by Mundungus Fletcher as being so even before the kids meet him which doesn’t jive with being illiterate. He mentions Rita Skeeter’s book in a way that implies he’s read it and is seen both reading and writing in front of his brother in the Fantastic Beasts movies which points the original comment in the “mean joke” direction.
  • 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.
  • Inheritance Cycle: Eragon never learned to read, although the uncle who raised him was literate; Brom irritably speculates that Garrow considered it an unnecessary luxury. 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). Eragon's cousin Roran, having grown up in the same house, also never learned to read. He indicates a desire to try and learn since his inability to do so is holding him back from advancing in the Varden's ranks, but it isn't brought up much afterwards.
  • Jakub Wędrowycz: The title character's academic education is limited to three years of elementary Russian school, so he barely knows the Latin alphabet (he never bothered to brush up on it in over 80 years). Note, though, that Jakub is very big on Obfuscating Stupidity (also, Obfuscating Insanity and Obfuscating Drunkenness).
  • 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.
  • George from Like a Fish Understands a Tree can't read. To his annoyance, he's still required to "read" magazines with everyone else as one of his activities at College.
  • Lyra: Comes up in Patricia C. Wrede's series final book "The Raven Ring" by way of Culture Clash. 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.
  • W. Somerset Maugham: "The Verger" 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.
    "Can you imagine where you would be today if you knew how to read?"
    "I know exactly where I'd be. I'd be a verger in the church."
  • In Matched, most people don't know how to read, since reading and books are outlawed.
  • In The New Job, Theofil (having grown up as a 19th-century Eastern European peasant) doesn't learn to read or write until late in life. When he does, it leads to a heartwarming moment when he writes his first-ever love letter to his wife of 20 years.
  • Unsurprisingly, none of the animals in The One and Only Ivan can read. However, Ivan the gorilla understands English, knows something about reading. He can see the mall's billboard from his cage, and knows that what's written on it is the same verbal spiel he's heard countless times - Welcome To The Exit 8 Big Top Mall And Video Arcade, Home To The One And Only Ivan. After great effort, he manages to deduce which set of letters corresponds to "home" and laboriously copies them in a painted collage depicting the zoo he saw in a commercial. Unfortunately to humans his artwork is abstract in the extreme, but it does draw attention to the plight of him and the other animals in the mall, and that helps.
  • Say of Pink And Say can't read.
  • Ragged Dick: In Horatio Alger, Jr.'s book, 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.
  • Rebuild World: Akira never knew his parents and grew up without a formal education until Alpha teaches him to read and write. Because of this, it's not until he gets his temporary Hunter license turned into a real one that he notices that his name had been misspelled because he couldn't read it until Alpha taught him to.
  • In Redeeming Love, Angel was a Sex Slave since she was 8, and her pimps had seen no reason to teach her to read or write. Later in the novel, one of her new friends teaches her.
  • 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.
  • Larten Crepsley in The Saga of Darren Shan. Considering his upbringing as a child laborer turned vampire's assistant, it's understandable.
  • In Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers, this is a part of what kicks off the plot progression. In the beginning, the brothers age from 17 to 25, and the vicar has given a stern call for them to finally take the ABC book into their hands.
  • 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?
  • It's revealed at the end of Six of Crows that Wylan Van Eck can't read. It makes the messages his father sent him all the crueler.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Davos Seaworth. 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 nobility).
    • Gilly outright calls Samwell Tarly a wizard when he proves able to "turn squiggles on paper into words".
  • Spenser: The title character encounters a college basketball star who can't read in the novel Playmates.
  • Likewise in The Stainless Steel Rat. Slippery Jim is on a primitive planet and is signed up as a mercenary and told to scrawl an X as he undoubtedly can't read. Being an alien offworlder, Jim states that he can read and so is first going to correct how the recruiter twice tried to sign him up for the stated enlistment period.
  • Nick Andros in The Stand is deaf-mute and communicates primarily by writing, which makes for a complicated situation when the first person he meets after The Plague, Tom Cullen, is developmentally disabled and can't read. In spite of this, the two become fast friends.
  • The Stormlight Archive: Part of the Vorin religion's strict gender roles mean that men are not allowed to 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 that are practically a language in their own right, but since they are designed to be recognizable even by someone who has 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. Late in the second book, Words of Radiance, it's discovered that Lord Amaram managed to find a Loophole Abuse around this by arranging glyphs into a complex series of ideas, creating what was essentially a full language that at first looks like gibberish to those who are used to just seeing glyphs by themselves.
    • In Oathbringer, Dalinar scandalises his country (yet again) by learning to read, and even writing the in-universe book that gives the story its name.
  • Goo, from the Australia comic book-ish series Super Sidekicks is revealed to be illiterate at the end of the first book. It’s understandable since he was created in a lab by an evil scientist who kept him locked in a glass jar 90% of the time before he broke out (and destroyed the entire base after he escaped from the second jar he was locked in). Flygirl is shown to be teaching him to via children’s book in the second book, and by the third book, he gained enough of a grasp on it to read a simple wall inscription (long story).
  • Theod Knecht in To Shape a Dragon's Breath went from a New Livnik orphanage straight into training to serve a upper class household, where he thought he'd likely remain; he never went to primary school or any formal education. After bonding with a dragon hatchling (and making it through the scandal that resulted afterwards when Frau Kuiper intervenes and takes him in as a Scholarship Student) he is then thrust into academy, even illiterate. Even a year later, he struggles to read.
  • 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. Her parents didn't know how to read either.
  • In Unofficial History by Sir William Slim, The Scrounger of Slim's unit is caught red-handed stealing a box of supplies. To everyone's surprise, he's acquitted by a court-martial. Turns out the box was full of sugar, which the soldiers get anyway in their rations, so what reason would he have to steal a box of it? He only reveals afterward to Slim that because he can't read, he'd just stolen the wrong box.
  • In The Water-Babies, Tom is a ten-year-old chimney-sweep who has never been taught to read or write.
  • Kya from Where the Crawdads Sing attends exactly one day of school at age 7. As a result, up until Tate teaches her to read as a teenager, the only word she can read is her name.
  • Diarmid in Who Needs Men?, since he was raised in a postapocalyptic chaos. His wife wants to teach him, but there is never the time for it.
  • Worm: Rachel Lindt, aka "Bitch", can read and write only at an extremely basic level (not even close to being fully literate) due to her nasty childhood. When the team sends letters to Taylor late in the story, Rachel had to dictate hers to one of her minions rather than write it herself.
  • Inverted in a novel about the building of Hoover Dam (might have been Big Red by John Haase). Someone applies for a job and has to sign a document that spells out how the job has No OSHA Compliance and he has no rights whatsoever. As it's the Great Depression and there's no other work, he signs where the document tells him to, whereupon the boss gives him a Death Glare. "Why didn't you tell me you could read?"

    Live-Action TV 
  • 30 Rock: In one episode, Liz and Pete suspected that Tracy might be illiterate. He wasn't, but he played along to get out of work.
  • Bad Girls: Denny Blood, after her mother writes her a letter of apology for abandoning her and begs her to read it.
  • Benson: Benson is stunned to realize that his nephew is barely literate, having spent all his time practicing and playing basketball. The young man thinks it's no big deal but Benson stresses that he might not get a professional contract and even if he did, he can't play ball forever.
  • Black Books: There's an episode where a character is 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") and the protagonists have to teach him, since he threatens to brutally murder them and their mums if he still can't read by the time the book reading is scheduled.
  • 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.
  • Corner Gas: In one episode, 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.
  • The Cosby Show: Sammy Davis Jr. guest starred as Ray Palomino, the grandfather of Cliff's patient who is about to give birth and has nowhere to live. Ray bristles when asked to write down contact info or read a pamphlet about childcare. Cliff's wife Clair opines the behavior may suggest illiteracy. She confirms this when Ray provides a list he supposedly wrote himself, but when asked to read a poorly written name, he claims to have forgotten his glasses. Asked to confirm the spelling of "Tom Mitchell" by clarifying if it's spelled with one A or two, Ray happily replies that it is spelled with two. Near the end of the episode, a retired English teacher offers to tutor him so he can read to his new great-grandchild.
  • Downton Abbey: When Andrew starts helping on the farm owned by Daisy's father-in-law, he is given some books to help with the tasks. When showing them to Thomas, the latter suspects Andrew is hiding something. In private later, Andrew admits in a burst of frustration that he never learned to read; he just looks at the pictures and only knows how to sign his name. Thomas, rather uncharacteristically, is fully sympathetic and refuses to mock Andrew; he even offers to help teach the younger man.
  • The Drew Carey Show: One episode spoofed cheap attempts to win an Emmy, in which Drew had to single-handedly discover a cure for Kate's terminal illness. The only problem is, he never learned to read.
  • Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The doctor 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.
  • EastEnders: Keith Miller.
  • An episode of Elementary features an imprisoned man who was illiterate at the time of his conviction, something attributed to poverty and dysfunctional home environment. He's depicted as having not only learned during his incarceration, but become able to read at an advanced level, frequently quoting classic literature. Somebody invested in teaching him to that extent proves to be Sherlock and Joan's lead on his accomplice.
  • The Facts of Life: There was one episode where Tootie's boyfriend turns out to be illiterate.
  • 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 an 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).
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Davos, due to his humble origins. Davos's wife and son tried to teach him in the past, but it's suggested he was wary of that because they were trying to convert him through holy books. Shireen decides to teach him and he finally learns.
    • Amory Lorch sent a letter regarding the Lannister plans to the wrong House, a House that is loyal to the Starks.
    • Inverted for Arya Stark when she serves as Tywin Lannister's cupbearer during the second season. She's had a highborn daughter's education and thus can read very well, but this makes her stick out since she's trying to pose as a lowborn peasant and thus probably shouldn't know how to read.
  • 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 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.
  • 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. Of course he never showed up again.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Fitzcairn from Highlander dragged his feet on learning how to read for centuries. By the late 20th century, Duncan finally convinces him to learn ... whereupon Fitzcairn just as stubbornly refuses to learn how to use a computer.
  • 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.
  • Butch Lesbian "Walter" from German TV series Hinter Gittern - der Frauenknast (English: "Behind bars - The Women's Prison").
  • Hollyoaks: Patrick Blake discovered Maxine to be illiterate and taught her to read (leading to their long-running Domestic Abuse storyline.)
  • House of the Dragon: Unusually from one of the most powerful nobles in the realm, Lord Borros Baratheon doesn't know how to read and needs his Maester to do it for him when Lucerys Velaryon brings him the message from Rhaenyra Targaryen.
  • 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.
  • 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 that resembles hieroglyphics. This example seems downplayed, as Charlie attended high school, and he was more or less functional in earlier seasons. It's implied that prolonged exposure to cleaning chemicals and inhalants are gradually frying his brain. The Gang has no interest in helping Charlie learn how to read or write, and neither does he.
    "Goddammit Charlie, your illiteracy has screwed us again!"
    • It's later revealed that he can read Irish Gaelic ...but not speak it.
  • One Kate & 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.
  • A first-season episode of Law & Order focuses on a baby who has been shot to death by a teenage hitman working for a drug dealer. Stone gets the kid on the stand and forces him to admit that he's illiterate; the dealer had written the address of the intended target, but the kid went to the wrong place.
  • 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 climactic scene, where he denounces the newspaper as "yellow journalism".
  • Logan's Run: In "Man Out of Time", the tribe living in the ruins of the Sanctuary Project facility have no concept of what reading and writing are.
  • MacGyver featured a construction worker and father who, as a plot point, never learned how to read and thus doesn't figure out first-hand when his troublemaking son with aspirations of engineering's school suspension is lifted, or that an inspection report details that the very construction site he's working on is a serious disaster zone (and the foreman bribed the inspector to "overlook" it). This nearly costs the worker his life when the inevitable happens at the climax.
  • In The Magnificent Seven TV series, one episode did this for tracker Vin Tanner.
  • Mama's Family: In the episode "Reading the Riot Act", 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.
  • Monk had a subversion — a suspect who was a Mexican immigrant and tried to hide the fact that he couldn't read English. 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.
  • 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.
  • Eugene from the Korean drama Mr. Sunshine (2018) lived in Korea until he was 9 and escaped to America from his slave owner with the help of a missionary. Since he was the child of slaves, he never learned to read in Korean. In the US, he was able to learn to read and write English well enough to get a university education at the Naval Academy. When he gets stationed in his hometown as a Marine officer, he has to learn to read his native tongue.
  • My So-Called Life, "Why Jordan Can't Read". Subverting 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. He can write music 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.
  • 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.
  • One Life to Live's Lee Ann realized this about her friend Jason Webb. She offered to teach him. Sure enough, her spending time with him caused tension in her marriage (not helped by her refusing to tell her husband why she was hanging out with him, wanting to protect his privacy) and ultimately led to an affair.
  • Our Flag Means Death: Most of the crew, except for Stede, Jim, and Lucius, never learned to read or write. Understandable, given that the show is set in 1717.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): In "The Grell", the titular Slave Race are forbidden to read and write by their human masters.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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."
    • One Celebrity Jeopardy sketch has Jeff Goldblum — as played by guest host David Duchovny — spending the whole show dreamily going off on verbal tangents. It turns out he's unable to participate in Final Jeopardy because, as he sadly admits, "I can't read or write."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Spartacus: Blood and Sand: Many of the escaped slaves don't know how to read, which makes sense given they would likely not be educated in this regard. Whenever they find writing, like when they intercept a Roman messenger, they have to ask someone like Spartacus what it says.
  • 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. It's possible though that Jake is teaching him how to read human script since Ferengi has its own system of writing.
  • London from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, thanks to years of neglect, sacrificed education and overall being a lazy ditz.
  • Thanks: Grammy is the only member of the Winthrop family who is illiterate. In the final episode, Elizabeth teaches her how to write her name.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 dog-fighting 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.
  • None of the Norsemen in Vikings know how to read or write.note  The only main character who can do either is Athelstan, but he's also a very well-educated Anglo-Saxon monk from Christian England.
  • In The Waltons episode, "The Scholar", Verda Grant, an illiterate but proudly self-sufficient African-American 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 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.
  • Itinerant cowhand Dave Blassingame, the protagonist of The Westerner, was illiterate (an unusual piece of realism for a 1960s TV western), although he could read numbers. In "School Days", he is taking lessons from a Schoolmarm to learn how to write his name.
  • 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!"
  • 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.

  • Country music singer/songwriter Paul Overstreet released a song called "Billy Can't Read," where the title character struggles through a series of hardships before eventually learning to read. The song's release helped champion adult literacy programs.
  • 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.
  • Don Henley recorded a song on his first solo album 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.
  • There are numerous musicians who never learned how to read sheet music and "played by ear". Paul McCartney, Glen Campbell, and Tori Amos (her first band was called Y Kant Tori Read for this reason) are just a few.
  • The narrator of 10,000 Maniacs' "Cherry Tree" laments their inability to read.

    Pro Wrestling 
  • A less comedic example: Bob Backlund really was illiterate for most of his adult life. Despite graduating college, he didn't teach himself more than basic literacy until he was 42.
  • John Cena would say this word for word during some interviews/debates to get the crowd laughing.
    (while in an in-ring debate with Bobby Lashley) And the worst part of it is... (starts crying heavily) I never learned to reeeeaaaad!
  • Similar to Backlund above, Diamond Dallas Page didn't learn to read until he was well into his 30's.

  • 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 Mark & Brian Radio Program had 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."

  • In Insane Café 4, the Saurolophus eskrimadora Ms. Swimmer is illiterate. However, between Insane Café 4 and Insane Café 5, she apparently has learned how to read.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • 3rd Edition: Unlike any other character class, the Barbarian is illiterate unless they multiclass or spend extra skill points on literacy. The reason is left ambiguous, such as the barbarian coming from a culture with an oral tradition, but can pose problems if they come to a writing-dependent civilization.
    • Basic D&D has the ability to read based on the INT score. Characters with an int below 6 are illiterate, and those below 9 can handle simple words.
  • Characters in Exalted need at least one dot in either Lore in 2e or Linguistics in 3e to be literate. Due to an infamous oversight in 2e, iconic villain Mask of Winters can't actually read. Barbarian characters (which include Lunar Exalted) in 2e need two dots in Lore to be literate, as their home cultures have oral traditions instead.
  • In Fading Suns, the stereotypical Avestite can't read. Avestites are also in charge of rooting out heresy, even if they're not capable of reading the Omega Gospels to know what is true doctrine.
  • 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.
  • In Ironclaw only Mages and a few other careers like Dilettante (one of two playable forms of nobleman) are automatically literate. Everyone else needs to spend character points on Literacy.
  • Rifts: Keeping the general populace illiterate is a control method implemented by the Coalition States. 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.
  • Warhammer 40,000: It's quite common for commoners and soldiers in the Imperium to be illiterate; recruits who are able to read and write can often count on promotion specifically because of this advantage. Of course, since the Imperium is vast, this will also vary between different regions; some are more literate than others.

  • 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 a 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 illiteracy helps spur Gutenberg to invent the printing press. Most notably, a woman's inability to read accidentally kills her child (she mistakes jelly beans for medicine. It's that kind of musical).
  • Notably averted in Newsies. The Newsies are shown to be uneducated and orphaned, but presumably all or mostly know how to read the newspapers they sell.
  • Played for Laughs in an early scene of Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier, where Ja'far drops by a bookstore and has a run-in with its crotchety owner.
    Bookstore owner: Oh, so you think you're better than me just 'cause you can read? Well get out of my bookstore!
  • 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."
  • Westeros: An American Musical: Davos turns out to not have known to read in Act I because he's seen learning to do so in "Please, Your Grace".

    Video Games 
  • Player characters in Ancient Domains of Mystery may start the game illiterate, depending on the chosen class, race, and Learning stat.
  • BattleToads (2020): Zits questions if Rash knows how to read when the trio examine a billboard in one stage and Rash doesn't realize what it says. His reply in which he mispronounces "books" doesn't help his case.
  • 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.
  • The protagonist of Card Shark starts off being unable to read or write, but as he travels with the Comte and learns from him, his journal entries improve significantly.
  • 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.
  • Dragon Age:
    • In Dragon Age: Origins, if you play as a Dwarf Commoner, you should be illiterate, seeing as how you're a two-bit thug on the lowest rung of Dwarven society. But since being unable to read would add a layer of complication to other parts of the game, the crime boss you work for mentions that he taught your prostitute sister to read as part of making her into a High-Class Call Girl, and it's implied that she passed those lessons onto you.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • Fallout:
    • Fallout 3: You can talk Mister Lopez out of suicide (and gain good karma) by convincing him to act as a father figure to the young orphan Ted Strayer. Mister Lopez will mention teaching him how to read. It's implied most wastelanders are illiterate.
    • Fallout: New Vegas: Honest Hearts. The Survivalist's journals mention a group of children who would eventually become the Sorrows arriving in Zion Canyon. He specifically goes out of his way to point out that they're literate.
  • Fire Emblem:
    • Nino from Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade was so badly neglected by her Abusive Parent Sonia that she cannot read. Instead, she 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 have him teaching her how to properly read and write.
    • Cyril from Fire Emblem: Three Houses reveals in his B support with Lysithea that he was never taught to read. This is justified by him being an orphaned Almyran refugee taken in as a servant by Archbishop Rhea, who has never seen a need for him to learn reading in his current position, while he has never had any ambition of his own. This does make him an oddity among the cast, however, as every other recruitable character is either a teacher or a student at Garreg Mach, meaning that even the handful of his fellow commoners had to master reading to pass the entrance exams.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In God of War (PS4), when Atreus mentions that his father Kratos cannot read, Kratos corrects him — he can read, just not the language they're currently speaking. Presumably, Kratos spoke Ancient Greek in the original trilogy and is speaking Old Norse currently, with Translation Convention rendering both as English. Why Kratos can speak Old Norse but not read it goes unexplained. Atreus offers to teach his father how to read Old Norse, but they never get the opportunity to really start, requiring Atreus to read all the writing in the game on his father's behalf. By the time of God of War Ragnarök however Kratos has learned to read Nordic runes.
  • Helen's Mysterious Castle: Helen, until a sheep dies and her brother figure Ardis makes a grave and notices she can't read what he put on it. So he teaches her how to read, which also unlocks the information in the books that are in the titular castle.
  • In Kid Icarus: Uprising, Pit, upon seemingly falling to his doom claims to have never learned to read.
    Pit: Mayday! Mayday! This looks like the end! I never learned how to reeeeead!
  • In Kingdom Come: Deliverance, several characters are explicitly stated to be illiterate. Granted, this game is set in a realistic version of rural 14th-century Bohemia, so literacy is very much the exception.
    • Henry is initially illiterate, and the player has to pay a scribe to teach him how.
    • When the bailiff of Uzhitz gets into an argument with the local priest and threatens to report him to his superiors, the priest merely laughs. Then the priest explains that if his antagonist wants to send a letter denouncing him to the bishop, he'll need to find someone to write it for him first, and the priest is the only literate person in the village.
    • Sir Hanush is also illiterate, being more inclined towards a more... hands-on approach to governance. When called out on this, he, rather defensively, claims that he doesn't need to know how to read; that's what he hires scribes for.
  • Pokémon: The franchise has two examples with both girls being raised in two vastly different environments, one being a rural forested area and the other being a major urban city, but share a common trait of both being illiterate but not dumb.
    • Pokémon X and Y: Emma, an orphan who has lived on the streets her whole life has never learned to how to read (though she can speak several languages, having overheard plenty of foreign tourists). Once Looker takes her in, she begins studying.
  • Pyre takes place in a society where reading is a punishable offense. People who are found reading are banished to the Downside and the aversion is The Reader, a character capable of reading and therefore, guiding a group of exiles through the rites.
  • 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 the prequel Red Dead Redemption II, it's stated that even John didn't know how to read until he was taken in by the Van der Linde gang when he was 12. Nor did the protagonist of that game Arthur Morgan (he was a few years older than John when he met Dutch) or many of the other members of the gang. Arthur develops this skill rather nicely, as evidence by his journal. John...less so. Early on in Chapter 2, you can find Jack Marston being taught to read with Abigail saying that she wants him to learn to read so he can have a better life than she did.
    • Also comes into play with a side mission, in which the Roanoke Fuel Company, having polluted the Butcher Creek water supply and giving the inhabitants/wildlife lead-poisoning, have one of their employees pose as a shaman, manipulate the residents into thinking it's a spiritual curse, and trying to manipulate them into signing a legal waiver absolving the company of responsibility for the incident, assuming they're of them isn't.
  • Remnants of Isolation: The girl who would be named Celesta, as said when examining the bookshelves in her cell:
    A huge library of books.
    But you were never taught how to read.
  • Team Fortress 2: Subverted. While various characters in the comics, like Miss Pauling, state that four of the nine mercenaries are illiterate, they are all depicted being able to read and write, even if a few have a reading level below below where they should be.
  • 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 means?

    Visual Novels 
  • Cooking Companions: Anatoly, one of your companions, has the outward appearance of a scholar but never even learned simple math.
  • Fate/stay night: It is briefly mentioned in Assassin's backstory that he was never taught how to read and write because he is a farmer turned swordsman.
  • The Great Ace Attorney: Before being taken under Inspector Gregson's wing as a Scotland Yard apprentice investigator, Gina Lestrade spent her life as a pickpocket on the East End streets of London, stealing what she could to support herself and the other orphans. After she's begun working under Gregson, in "The Return of the Great Departed Soul", she tells Ryunosuke that she can't read very well, by which she means that she's just recently started learning the alphabet — she later tells him that she's currently working on the letters A through E. By the time of "The Resolve of Ryunosuke Naruhodo", she's come a long way; she says that she has reading "all buttoned up" and is proud to demonstrate that she can now read full words, dates, and names. In the end credits, she happily says that she now knows the whole alphabet and as such is able to read the note she found from Gregson that he left for her before he was killed.

  • Gunnora from Alfdis & 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.
  • Leonard Derrin in Blonde Sunrise, due to growing up in poverty and having an ill father who could barely read himself, is illiterate. It's not until Daine decides to help him that Leonard can even so much as read his own name.
  • Charby uses food as a motivator to teach Menu how to read after he mistakes rat poison for candy in Charby the Vampirate.
  • 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. Played for Drama when she doesn't realize 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.
  • Hetalia: Axis Powers: Apparently, Japan assumed as much about Italy.
    Germany: Oh, this is a note from Italy.
    Japan: [Beat] Italy is literate?
  • Karate Bears can't exactly read the menu either.
  • Miss Abbott and the Doctor: With her background, Cati Abbott was never taught to read or write, and learns to do both throughout the series. Ten years later, she's able to write long letters, albeit with some spelling errors.
  • The main character of Necropolis was just the daughter of a poor barley farmer in a medieval-ish fantasy setting before her village was destroyed by raiding bandits, so she either never learned to read or was sub-literate at absolute best before she was taken into the service of the Queen's warriors. As a peace keeper for the Queen, there is much more expected for her to know and be able to do, and being able to read is just one of them. During some travels with her Mentor, her Training Montage shows her doing both physical training and learning to read, with her mispronouncing simple words and being made to read the same story multiple times until she can do so without making any mistakes.
  • 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.
  • Unsounded: As with most low-class Sharteshanians, Sette is illiterate, which becomes a plot point when she obtains secret letters from her father about his plans, which might have involved selling her out, but doesn't trust anyone present to read them to her. Also Played for Drama when Jivi taunts her about it in a crowded room, which even people who dislike her agree was going too far.
  • Voldemort's Children invokes this, as Harry's abusive past has left him barely literate when he enters Hogwarts.
  • Whale Star: The Gyeongseong Mermaid: Su-a was raised as a servant and can't read or write. It becomes a roadblock when she is rendered mute. Uihyeon later starts teaching her how to read and write, and she does so crudely but understandably.


    Web Videos 
  • Lelouch/One, 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 it's possible he can't read kanji but can write hiragana or katakana.
    One: [repeatedly hitting himself in the head] Damn it! Must! Learn! To! Read!
    Kallen: I just realized something: I can't read!
  • Being a Barbarian with an Intelligence of 6, it's not much of a surprise that Grog Strongjaw of Critical Role is illiterate. However, later on, he does make an effort to learn how to read by himself.
  • 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
  • Highcraft: The group has Logan read out the rules in "INFERNAL HIGH II". He struggles with this, trying to sound the words out loud, much to everyone else's annoyance.
  • Luffy from None Piece is unable to read the disclaimer in episode 3, Played for Laughs.
  • StacheBros: In "Spike in the Most Amazing Story Ever", Spike admits to being illiterate, which leaves him unable to write a chapter in the Mushroom Kingdom Storybook.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Toph is a justified version of this trope due to the fact that she was born blind and lives in a world that doesn't have any form of Braille. Despite this, there are still a few times where this is Played for Laughs, such as when she tries to prove that she can help put up wanted posters only to put it blank side up or when she points that she is blind when people try to get her to read something.
  • Batman Beyond: The episode "Joyride" gave the audience this quote:
    Coe: It is a U.F.O., isn't it?
    Scab: Wake up, Coe! All the writing's in English.
    Coe: You can read?!
  • Beavis And Butthead: Beavis and Butt-Head are generally illiterate, either misreading signs/labels as something else or finding them too difficult to understand. In "School Test", they take several hours to write down their own names; Beavis couldn't even do it correctly, writing his as "Beafis".
  • Captain N: The Game Master: In "The Invasion of the Paper Pedalers", this trope helps the paperboy Julio escape Mother Brain’s mind-controlling papers due to the fact that illiteracy makes one immune to them.
  • Captain Planet and the Planeteers: The episode "The Fine Print" had the villain Looten Plunder trick an illiterate worker named Joe into spraying poison instead of fertilizer by putting stickers of smiling apples over the barrels' skull and crossbones insignias. The Planeteers help Joe understand the importance of learning to read and undo the damage Plunder tricked him into causing.
  • Castlevania (2017): Played With by Trevor Belmont. He can read normal Romanian text just fine, but the various languages of the books in the Belmont Hold are beyond him due to being orphaned before he could be taught them. Compared to the brilliant Sylpha and Alucard, who are both multilingual, he's basically illiterate.
  • Conan the Adventurer: In one episode, Conan admits that he never learned how to read (something not that unusual for a rural blacksmith's son in a medieval time period). His travelling companions manage to teach him in an improbably short period of time.
  • Dora the Explorer: The villain in "Dora's Royal Rescue" never learned to read, and is thus trying to stop everyone else from reading. In the end, Don Quixote agrees to teach him.
  • Drawn Together: The series has Foxxy Love taking and failing her Reading 101 test.
  • Family Guy: The trope is explored twice in the series:
    • In "12 And A Half Angry Men", it's mentioned that Carl the convenience store manager is illiterate. He even passes off a piece of paper with a squiggly line on it as the word "guilty" in Latin.
    • The episode "Throw It Away" has a joke about Chris being unable to read after finding a suicide note left by Lois.
      Chris: Words, letters, letters and words, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, more words and letters.
      Meg: Chris, can't you read?
      Chris: No, I know the letters when they're on their own, but, you know, when they team up like this, I'm just, uh... I'm sort of outmatched.
  • 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 believes he is too old to learn now, in contrast to Broadway, who, 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 proud of his illiteracy, openly mocking the Magus's reliance on his spellbook. (The showrunners have stated that this was deliberately made a part of his character as a sneaky little "Reading Is Cool" Aesop — you don't want to be like Hakon, do you, kids?)
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: The DiC Entertainment continuation featured a boy named Adam who had trouble learning to read in the episode "A is for Android". He ends up learning to recognize the word "fire" in time to help General Hawk destroy his own android duplicate.
  • The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy: The episode "Billy Idiot" revealed at one point that Billy's dad can't read. Strangely, he was shown reading a newspaper both before and after his IQ dropped down to be the same as his son's. Also in the episode "The Taking Tree", it was shown that he was accepted to Harvard possibly around the same age as Billy unless he is Older Than He Looks in the Flashback.
  • Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law:
    • "Death by Chocolate" has Yogi Bear reveal that he and Boo-Boo are illiterate during his testimony. Boo-Boo's illiteracy is proven false after Harvey comes across the typewriter Boo-Boo wrote his Unabooboo manifesto on.
    • "Deadomutt" parodies this trope when the villain Mentok used his Psychic Powers to override the jury to send Harvey to jail. He soon forgets how to read during the three and a half years that he spent in prison and has to relearn. Over the span of six months he goes from trying to read a children's book and having a Golden Moment to doing the exact same thing except for reading the Penthouse forums.
  • Hey Arnold!: Oskar Kokoshka is revealed to be illiterate in "Oskar Can't Read?", which he doesn't seem to mind until he does and asks Arnold for help. Granted, it is possibly justified by the fact that he's a Czechoslovakian immigrant for whom English is a second language, so it might just be that he hasn't learned to read English. While he succeeds in being able to read English, the problem is he takes everything he reads far too literally.
  • Jem: The series featured an episode where it was revealed Roxy was illiterate, which was foreshadowed a few times early on but never clarified until season 2. After this she begins to learn to read which is even given a Call-Back in the finale, where she and the other Misfits go to Ba Nee's farewell party as she was the girl who gave Roxy a book to help her learn to read.
  • The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack: In one episode it was revealed that Captain K'nuckles can't read. This was revealed when he tries to read Flapjack's diary to see what he had written about him, but naturally, he can't understand it.
  • Metalocalypse: A variation can be found in the series, 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, but actually, such a thing is quite possible. Most rock and other popular music performers don't use or need sheet music and instead they write music by jamming and learn by ear, and transcribe it in the form of tablature, which uses the guitar strings and fret positions as reference points. In fact many of the great Blues musicians of the '20s and '30s couldn't read at all, let alone read sheet music.
  • The Raccoons: In the episode "Read No Evil!", Bert befriends a hermit who is 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.
  • Regular Show: In "Take the Cake", Mordecai and Rigby are tasked with picking Mr. Maellard's birthday cake from a bakery. When they realize they have a prepaid receipt, they get into that line, and a woman starts pitching a fit and calling them line cutters, not realizing there's a separate line for prepaid costumers, and the clerk tells her maybe she should learn how to read. Later, that same woman tries to run the boys off the road, but they manage to lose her after she crashes her car into a ditch. It turns out she actually couldn't read and couldn't tell what a "road closed" sign said. So on top of being a psycho, the woman was also a moron.
  • The Simpsons: This trope has appeared or been referenced five times in the long running series. In fact, both the creators and writers have discussed two of the examples listed below with an interesting note that both of the characters were originally going to be the same character being Krusty the Clown and Homer Simpson before they became separate characters.
    • In "Krusty Gets Busted", Krusty the Clown is cleared of a robbery in part because of the revelation of his illiteracy. However, this does create a Fridge Logic moment as later information would reveal that his father is a Rabbi who trained him to be one himself making it hard to believe that he would be illiterate. To be fair though, his reading level is minimal, he is a drug addict, and it could be that illiterate when it comes to English, which would make it more realistic. Either way, the show creators mentioned in one of the DVD commentaries that they decided to drop this character trait as it wouldn't make sense given the stuff that he does.
    • In "Treehouse of Horror IV", Blackbeard is revealed to be illiterate in a moment that is Played for Laughs. In the scene, Marge gives the jury, which he is a part of, her wedding photo and tells them to look what is on the back of it leading to this hilarious quote:
      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 compensatin'!
    • In "When You Dish Upon a Star", Homer states that this is his secret to Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, when he accidentally discovers they are secretly in town, after they ask him to not tell anyone that they are in town. Strangely, this is never mentioned again so whether it's true or not is unknown, as even Baldwin lampshades the fact that Homer just read the card on a gift basket, to which counters that he recognized the logo (which is possible). One of the writers even addressed this in a book by stating it was added for Rule of Funny despite Homer being depicted as being able to read both before and after this moment.
    • In "Grift of the Magi", Springfield Elementary parodies this trope by putting on a play for Mr. Burns, talking about the downsides of it that could affect him as a businessman. They put on the play for him, due to the school running out of funds when they installed faulty and expensive ramps for an injured Bart, in the hopes that he will donate money to help the school which sadly doesn't work. After this fails, the toy company Kid First Industries steps in and privatizes the school, with a hidden agenda of observing the kids in the hopes that it will lead to creation of a hit toy in time for Christmas, with the end result being Funzo.
    • In "The Book Job", Neil Gaiman reveals this about himself, in a bizarre self presentation of himself, after pretending to be the Butt-Monkey of a con artists group, who are trying to make money as authors, only to reveal himself as a Diabolical Mastermind and go behind their backs to publish the book under his name. This revelation also implies that all of his previous books were published under similar cons of other people who are the real authors.
  • Sonic Boom: Knuckles is a Zig-Zagging Trope as his literacy level changes depending upon the episode, which can range from illiterate to literate enough to read government documents. In the episode "My Fair Sticksy", he temporarily forgets that he can't read after putting on a pair of glasses to read Stick's invitation. In the episode "Chili Dog Day Afternoon", he is shown able to read a map, however the latter half of the episode, in which obtains and reads it, is All Just a Dream. Finally in the episode "Mayor Knuckles", he is shown able to recall the exact document a person would need and possibly create his own law document that he wished for the mayor to approve, unless he got one of his teammates to create it for him.
  • South Park: Parodied in an early episode 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 learn how to read. The next book he gives Barbrady is Atlas Shrugged, which causes Barbrady to swear off reading forever.
  • Spliced: The very first episode "Stuck Together" reveals that there is not just one illiterate person but three, this of course makes sense as all of the characters are the creations of a Mad Scientist. The episode begins with the main duo, Peri and Entree, exploring the Professor's abandoned laboratory, when they stumble upon a notebook that they can tell is about Peri, with a diagram of him in it, however neither of them can read it. This leads the pair to ask the smartest person they know, being Mr. Smarty Pants, to read it for them. Unbeknownst to them, however, is the fact that he too is illiterate and gives them false information to cover it up. While it fools the pair, his henchman Octocat confronts him and tearfully admits that he can't read before spending several frames crying. However, when the audience next sees him, Octocat forces him to learn by having him sound out the words in a children's book. The final scene even has him go to the pair to tell them that he couldn't read before and make up for it by reading Peri's true purpose. Unfortunately, his purpose remains The Unreveal as Entree used the pages as toilet greatly upsetting Peri.
  • Static Shock: A Very Special Episode in the fourth sesaon has the titular hero discover his former enemy-turned-ally, Rubberband Man, has this as a secret sore spot due to his severe dyslexia. During the episode, we see how this not only affects his civilian identity with him being unable to read his mountain of fan mail, but also his superhero identity when he has to read a manual to disarm a bomb (which thankfully he was able to do), even showing the audience his point of view with the letters looking more like the Cyrillic alphabet than Latin. To wrap it up nicely in a bow, the episode even ends with Static and Rubberband Man breaking the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience to give them a "Reading Is Cool" Aesop, this being the second and last time the series has done this with the first being the second season finale.
  • Sym-Bionic Titan: Played for Laughs with a Show Within a Show called "High School Heights", a show about each character being in a love triangle or having a secret, with one of the characters named Andy having a secret of being illiterate in high school and the only person who knows this is his girlfriend. This even gets referenced again in “The Ballad of Scary Mary”, where a friend of Kimmy Mysner reveals this to her but says not reveal anything else as her DVR acting up caused her to miss the episode.
  • Tiny Toon Adventures: An episode called "Why Dizzy Can't Read", (one part of a larger episode called "Elephant Issues"), has a plot revolving around Dizzy's illiteracy. Specifically, he is unable to read the script for a class assignment in Bugs Bunny's class, that has him reenact a scene from the original Looney Tunes with Buster Bunny as his partner, which causes the class to all laugh at him and leads Dizzy to storm out of the class. When Buster and Babs Bunny decide to look into the problem, they soon discover that the cause of his illiteracy is his addiction to television, leading to the episode's "Reading Is Cool" Aesop.

Alternative Title(s): Never Learnt To Read


GT's writing

Deer are not renowned for their spelling skills.

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:

Main / NeverLearnedToRead

Media sources: