We have now officially moved from talking about whether someone is ‘literate’ or not, to discussing how proficient their literacy skills are.
This is a significant step forward, which we should celebrate today – International Literacy Day. But we don’t yet have the tools to measure literacy along these lines in all parts of the world. Our celebrations, therefore, should be a bit muted.
Moving from a black and white discussion of literacy in dichotomous terms to levels of proficiency is a reflection of the advances that have been made in assessing literacy skills via direct assessments. This also acknowledges the fact that different levels and types of literacy empower adults to achieve different functions in life.
Without measurement tools to directly assess proficiency levels the world over, we still have to refer to the old way of reporting to learn about literacy on a global scale. As shown in the 2016 GEM Report released just this week, there are 758 million adults who are defined as ‘illiterate’, unable to read and write a simple sentence. There are 91 literate women for every 100 literate men – and as few as 74 literate women for every 100 literate men in low income countries.
Among young people (aged 15-24), 90% are literate, mainly due to the impact of expanded schooling. This means that 115 million youth worldwide lack literacy skills. The youth illiteracy rate was as high as 30% in sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the past twodecades, there has been more interest in improving literacy and numeracy data so that we have better ways of measuring such skills at a global level. This has mostly resulted in an improvement in information on adult literacy skills in richer countries, through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).
Such systematic assessments do not exist for most low and middle income countries however. Exceptions include the World Bank Skills towards Employment and Productivity (STEP) survey, carried out in urban areas, the UIS Literacy Assessment Monitoring Programme (LAMP) and a few nationally administered surveys.
If we want an international literacy day that throws light on the literacy challenges of our time, we need the measurement tools to match our needs. Our latest GEM Report calls for greater international collaboration to help carry out assessments of literacy skills that can be compared from one country to the next. We see three challenges to this, which I’ll list in turn.
For starters, we need to agree upon the way we are defining literacy for the purposes of international comparison.
Second, we need a reporting framework that captures different levels of proficiency and the literacy tasks survey participants can perform at each proficiency level.
Third, implementation issues, including costs, sampling demands and technical capacity, need to be resolved. The cost of assessments in high income countries and urban areas of some middle income countries is beyond reach for poorer countries, for instance. If we want to know about learning throughout life, which we clearly do, we urgently need cost-effective yet meaningful literacy assessment modules that all countries can utilize.
We need to encourage many more countries to carry out direct assessments of literacy skills. Only then would we know about adult skill levels in a wide range of contexts, thereby improving the monitoring of the global indicator for Target 4.6 in the new global education agenda. However, coordinating such efforts across countries remains an issue.
One initial hurdle is that different assessments define adult literacy in different ways. For PIAAC, which is conducted in 40 countries, literacy is defined as ‘the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential’. Literacy is conceived as an activity with a purpose and social function.
PIAAC defines six proficiency levels describing tasks individuals can typically carry out depending on their skills. For example, individuals at level 2, a basic standard, ‘can integrate two or more pieces of information based on criteria, compare and contrast or reason about information and make low-level inferences’. In the first round of PIAAC, 15% of adults fell below this level, ranging from less than 5% in Japan to almost 28% in Italy. Yet, all the participating countries were presumed to have achieved universal literacy, in the most rudimentary sense of being able to read.
The STEP survey, carried out in urban areas of middle income countries to assess literacy skills, used the same literacy scale as PIACC. In Colombia, where 75% of people live in cities, STEP showed that 36% of the population in 13 major metropolitan areas scored below level 2 (see figure). This stands in sharp contrast with Colombia’s official literacy rate of 98%.
Hopefully we needn’t hold off from celebrating too long. The OECD, UIL and UIS recently agreed to develop a short adult literacy assessment that will be linked to the PIAAC scale, while allowing for adaptation in different contexts. Adults would respond to a series of literacy-related questions and a background questionnaire as part of a household visit. The assessment could stand alone but also be carried out as a supplement to existing national studies such as the labour force survey.
In order to cover all bases, the envisioned assessment would need to have enough test items to be able to accurately place those being assessed on a wide literacy scale. It should be possible to identify whether individuals with very low literacy have problems mastering the basic components of reading, such as vocabulary, understanding sentence logic and fluency in reading text passages. There would also need to be considerable research to ensure that the survey was valid across different language groups, and is something countries with limited resources can work with as well.
Literacy assessment tools may have limited interest to some people, but the results they offer provide valuable information for policy makers and companies needing to work out where to put their resources and focus their attention. The 2016 GEM Report underlines just how critical these skills, and their improvement is. Literacy is more than just reading and writing; it is vital for poverty reduction, employability, social inclusion, healthier lives, climate change mitigation and ultimately, a healthier, sustainable planet.