What kind and level of literacy will create sustainable societies?

CaptureToday is International Literacy Day, focusing on the theme of ‘Literacy and sustainable societies’. The day will pay particular attention to exploring and consolidating the synergies between literacy and each one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be adopted at the UN High-level Summit this September. This blog explores what improvements need to be made in understanding, monitoring and defending literacy if we are to reap its full benefits post-2015.

Less than three weeks from now, the international community will resolve: “to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.” It will also resolve to “create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.” All of the 17 goals and 169 targets to be adopted at the UN Summit aim to contribute to these developments, including, notably, education and learning.

Literacy, the theme of today, is prioritized in at least two respects. First, the notion of ‘lifelong learning’ for all children, youth and adults is central to the SDG goal on education. Second, literacy and numeracy, which were well integrated in the Education for All Goals, are explicitly mentioned in target 4.6 of the SDGs.

transforms_cover_smThe fact that literacy has re-appeared as a SDG priority is of no surprise. We know that literacy can improve health, reduce disease, encourage tolerance and political participation, encourage environmentally friendly behavior and empower women to make the right decisions for themselves. Literacy should also part of the broad SDG ambition because we know how far we have to travel before we can say it has been achieved.

The GMR, for instance, has frequently exposed the extent of illiteracy among youth and adults. Our 2013/4 Report proved the chronic need for better teaching and learning by showing that around 175 million young people in poor countries – equivalent to around one quarter of the youth population – cannot read all or part of a sentence, affecting one third of young women in South and West Asia. The Gender Summary that year showed that over 100 million young women in low and lower middle income countries are unable to read a single sentence. On current trends, the Report projected that it will take until 2072 for all the poorest young women in developing countries to become literate.

capture4The GMR 2015 released this year showed that there has been barely any improvement in adult literacy rates since 2000: from 82% to an estimated 86% in 2015.  Worldwide more than 750 million adults are unable to read and write, a severe handicap for living a fulfilled life, one that is faced by over half of all women in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. Most recently, to prove the need for equitable progress towards literacy, the GMR also referred to its WIDE database to show that the poorest young women are six times less likely to be able to read than the richest.

If we are to put forward cogent arguments for literacy to be placed near the top of the long list of targets governments and donors have to achieve by 2030, and reap the full benefits of literacy over the next fifteen years, we will need to understand it better. Work is needed on the ways in which, and the mechanisms through which, literacy on the one hand, and formal years of schooling on the other, impact sustainable development and sustainability practices. This would be a very good start.

Capture1We also urgently need to develop, pilot and establish a short literacy assessment, or module, aimed at adults, which can measure literacy levels in a flexible, straightforward and effective manner. For too long, we have been using outdated conceptions of literacy as some universal skill that adults do or do not possess, rather than a proficiency measured on a continuum. Better common understanding of what progress in literacy means, and a module that can direct assess literacy levels in different languages, are essential if we are to evaluate the effectiveness of lifelong learning and/or adult education programmes post-2015.

Capture2Thirdly, we need better ways of capturing data on literacy and numeracy from different contexts so that results can be compared internationally. While this might take some years to develop, once such an assessment instrument has been validated, the data it generates will be eye-opening. Just as with PIAAC and other existing assessments like LAMP and STEP, such an assessment would provide a far stronger empirical basis to discern the relative social, political and economic impacts of literacy skill levels and years of formal schooling completed.

Fourthly, we need to assess the literate environment in which adults become motivate to acquire and retain literacy skills. As the GMR 2015 showed us, literacy requires not only a better supply of learning opportunities but also more opportunities to use, improve and retain literacy skills. Such opportunities have been growing since 2000. The rapid expansion of ICT, holds considerable promise. It may be possible to take advantage of widespread mobile phone use to promote stronger literate environments and reading practices, though clear evidence is not yet available on the impact of ICT on literacy skills.

Without these improvements, target 4.6 in the SDGs will remain vapid. A society without proficient readers cannot expect to achieve a sustainable future.   Opportunities must be available for all those who desperately want to be literate, so that the world can move closer towards the vision encapsulated in the Sustainable Development Goals. We know what to do. We must urgently work towards it so that no one is left behind.

About Aaron Benavot

Director EFA Global Monitoring Report, comparative education researcher, teacher and mentor
This entry was posted in Adult education, Africa, Developed countries, Developing countries, Economic growth, Employment, Equality, Equity, Learning, Literacy, Marginalization, mdgs, Millennium Development Goals, Out-of-school children, Post-2015 development framework, Post-secondary education, Quality of education, sdg, sdgs, Secondary school, Skills, Sustainable development, Teachers, Training and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What kind and level of literacy will create sustainable societies?

  1. Helen Abadzi says:

    International educationists keep talking about lofty goals for the 21st century but then strive to keep knowledge about learning processes in the 1940s. The poor deserve the benefits of cognitive neuroscience but they only get educational theology.

    Adult literacy is a prominent example. Reading has a continuum, but also a big discontinuity: with practice, readers start using a part of the brain that recognizes words as if they were faces. Then people read automatically, effortlessly. Around 45 words per minute are necessary.

    For some reason, adults cannot do this, so neoliterates are stuck reading letter by letter. To be permanently literate, one must have crossed over to automaticity.

    So, dear Aaron, the 2015 test does NOT have better content validity than the 2000 test. In fact, the 2000 test captured this discontinuity better.

    There is a body of research that attests to the adults’ difficulty in automaticity. Why do the various UNESCO offices choose to ignore this? As things stand, the same articles will be published in 2030.

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  2. I fully agree with Dr. Helen Abadzi’s views. This is our experience of last twenty five years with children . We focus on reading skills first and we define literacy as being able to read a newspaper I. The language you have larnt. To keep the automaticity gained through focused efforts we also make level appropriate reading material available to children and adults in a community.
    We are able to take children to the level of automaticity from the start to end in 240 clock hours if the child learns regularly for two hours every day. The regularity part of learning as important as the methods we use which are mainly learning activities which are instructive , engaging and enjoyable. Meticulous planning and ongoing monitoring of individual child’s progress visa vis the set goals are the very soul of the program we run.
    Although we do not have experience in adult literacy I am sure the same methodology will be useful for them as well.
    At any given point in time we cover about 8000 children under this program and the success rate is over 85%
    Rajani Paranjpe
    Founder President
    The Society for Door Step School
    India

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  3. iuwanibe says:

    I agree with the various points in this article. Literacy can help in bringing about sustainable development. It is necessary for young youths and children to be educated so as to reduce the rate of poverty due to ignorance and illiteracy. It is important for parents to send their kids to school in Nigeria here instead of making them sell things on the road. There are schools provided by the federal government to encourage education in Nigeria. So parents and guidance should endeavour to allow their children or wards attend schools and be educated. So as to reduce the load of the government in bringing about a suitable environment for living.

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  4. Jasleen Kaur says:

    I agree with your points that are mentioned in this blog. Literacy can help in bringing about sustainable development. It is necessary for young youths and children to be educated so as to reduce the rate of poverty due to ignorance and illiteracy. It is important for parents to send their kids to school in everywhere convenient place here instead of making them sell things on the road. There are schools provided by the federal government to encourage education in India, and other countries as well. So parents and guidance should endeavor to allow their children or wards attend schools and be educated. So as to reduce the load of the government in bringing about a suitable environment for living.

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  5. “So parents and guidance should endeavor to allow their children or wards attend schools and be educated. So as to reduce the load of the government in bringing about a suitable environment for living.”
    Although I agree with this comment I want to bring out another point in this context. If we are talking about literacy for all we are talking mainly about the elementary level of schooling, which ends at the age of ten or eleven. Majority of children who enter job market do so around that age or later and not before.
    If we focus on timely and 100% percent enrollment and quality education the goal of literacy for all wlil not be as severe as it is today.
    Lack of motivation of parents is certainly a big hurdle. But experience shows that if children are learning in school and show progress they feel interested in schooling and parents’ motivation improves a great deal. In addition there is need to work with parents and empower them to carry out a role of a school going child’s parent. The most important part of this role is to take interst in his or her schooling process and facilitate by adjusting his school schedule. We have seen that small but persistent inputs in changing parents attitude towards education does help greatly in sustaining children in school and in turn reducing the problem of child labour
    Rajani Paranjpe

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  6. If we are talking about universal literacy then the problem of child labour need not bother us. The children are to be enrolled in school at the age of six . Elementary education is upto 4th or 5th grade. Majority of children who enter job market do so by the age of eleven or twelve.

    Our experience of last twenty five years show that parents generally do not remove children from school if they are studying well and showing progress. A large number of dropouts at elementary level are due to different problems which are related to schools, and quality of education and the treatment children of parents who are illiterate, whose jobs are migrant in nature or whose children come to school “dirty” or have different language background and hence difficulty in communication get at some schools. (The reasons mentioned are only to show that not parents but schools are to be worked with to gear them to accommodate different groups of children)
    The issue of child labour and cultural taboos for girls are no doubt important hurdles but at the middle school level. By then we have to make everybody literate meaning the children should have mastered reading and writing skills in the first five years of schooling

    Rajani Paranjpe
    Founder president
    Door Step School

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