By functionally illiterate, do you mean someone who can't read? I know it sounds like a stupid question, but sometimes people use 'illiterate' to mean people who aren't able to do a wide range of stuff (i.e. computer illiterate, number illiterate, etc).
There are some examples of both, for instance Albert Einstein revolutionised the study of physics, but was dyslexic.
On a more personal note, while I wouldn't say I have any 'innate ability for math', I've managed to pass a three year accounting course, and written articles about bézier curves and other maths stuff, yet I have a problem called Dyscalculia. My dyscalculia only affects my mental arithmetic. As a result, my performance in maths at school got better as the maths got harder (as I was being allowed to use my reasoning to determine the process, but leave the actual calculations to a calculator).
So yeah, I consider myself as quite good at general mathematics. Just totally useless at mental arithmetic.
Thank you for your reply. Not a stupid question. Someone who is illiterate cannot read; someone who is "functionally illiterate" is able to read at perhaps a 1st or 2nd grade level, but not enough to fill out applications, pass license tests, etc.
I am writing a book and I want to develop a 12-year-old character who, due to circumstances beyond his control, never learned to read beyond the 1st=2nd grade level but discovers he has "an innate ability for math," i.e., numbers make sense to him while the alphabet remains a mystery. He is very intelligent and, of course, he learns to read by the end of the book. Only problem is, I don't know if it's possible to understand basic mathematical concepts (not word problems, obviously) without being able to read at least on a 5th-6th grade level. To me, it makes sense that it would be possible, but I don't seem to be able to find a definitive answer.
I saw the word "dyslexic" in a previous post and i had no idea what that is so i did a bit of..."research" and i found this on wikipedia, wich is related to the thread question :
Dyslexia should not be confused with dyscalculia, a learning disability marked by severe difficulties with mathematics. Individuals with dyslexia can be gifted in mathematics while having poor reading skills. However, in spite of this they might have difficulty with word problems (i.e., descriptive mathematics, engineering, or physics problems that rely on written text rather than numbers or formulas). Individuals with dyslexia may also have difficulty remembering mathematical facts, such as multiplication tables, learning the sequence of steps when performing calculations, such as long division, and other mathematics which involve remembering the order in which numbers appear. This may be exhibited by having a slow response in mathematical drills and difficulty with word problems.
DrBoom, What you just said in post #4 is basically that a dyslexic must also not have innate ability in Mathematics, since Mathematics relies very very much on written information. How could someone carry out algebraic steps or solve problems and do elaborate calculations if he is illiterate or dyslexic? Very very few exceptions exist.
One thing I've found after looking into dcalc and dlex is they are very individual problems, unique to each sufferer. It's a little like the common cold, just as two people with a cold can actually have very different virusses causing the symptoms, two people with dyslexia could be manifesting similar symptoms for entirely different reasons.
In my case with dcalc, I have a short-term working memory, meaning I usually can't hold all the stuff I need to in my head. So the moment I have to carry a digit, or perform more than one step, the numbers just drop from my head. You know that feeling of overwhelmingness that you get when mentally doing a sum or calc that's just too big for you? Well I get that much, much earlier than other people.
However, because it's basically a memory problem not a maths problem, my comprehension of maths is unaffected - so long as I have a calculator or a sheet of paper to make up for my faulty memory, I'm fine.
In the case of dyslexia, a student can understand number concepts, but I should imagine they'd be more likely to prefer practical maths. So dyslexia needn't necessarily prevent a man becomming a carpenter and doing all the necessary calculations, yet not being able to read a simple paragraph (I know a guy in this position).
Dyslexics that I know tend to be more practical because the brain makes up for its weaknesses. So you could have your character 'seeing' objects in his head while he calculates, splitting them to divide, an so on.
But understanding complex mathematics could be difficult, you may be better off making him just stupidly good at mental arithmetic. Maybe as a child, he's given books to look at, but he innately prefers clacking away on his dad's calculator, and piling lego bricks into orders of size and stuff.
Thank you to all for your input. I think I found the answer. I talked to a teacher who teaches Special Ed students as well as main-streamed kids with various disabilities. She told me that kids can, indeed, have difficulty with reading - for whatever reason: dyslexia, environment, multiple schools - and still have an innate ability for math. It's even got a name: number sense. I Goggled 'number sense' (I never heard the term - maybe some of you have) and got a wealth of information. Apparently people can be poor at reading and good at math just as some people are good at reading and poor in math.
It's true that they can't do word problems until they learn to read, but they can do difficult arithmetic problems in their heads and they can "see" complex numbers, know what they mean, and visualize the concepts.
Also, many people who are illiterate out of necessity develop phenomenal memories. They have to just to survive. They can't write down grocery lists or directions so they have to memorize them. According to the teacher, this carries over into math. While a person with a "normal" sense of numbers might have difficulty remembering which number to carry over, someone who can't read and gets through life by memorizing every list they come upon, applies this skill when they are working with figures. She said she is often amazed by kids who can barely read "See Jane run" but can multiply and divide complex numbers - even fractions - in their heads.
The research has been fascinating on this topic. Little did I know I would be entering a brand new (for me) arena of education.
Again, thanks to all for your input. It was extremely helpful and will put more flesh on my 12-year-old protagonist. Special thanks and congratulations to those of you who experienced obstacles and overcame them.