This International Literacy Day we want to draw attention to those living in households where no member can read – those we call ‘isolated illiterate individuals’ – whose chances of finding work and enjoying a good quality of life can be worse than they are for others. Census data shows that around 15-40% of illiterate people are isolated. These are precisely the people we should be making even more of an effort to reach.
Who are isolated illiterates?
There are far more isolated illiterate women than men, and far more in rural areas than in urban. In richer countries, isolated illiterates are relatively older than others, whereas the converse is true in poorer countries.
This might be because most people who are illiterate in poorer countries live in multigenerational households and hence are more likely to live alongside younger, more educated family members. By contrast, illiterates in richer countries, such as Greece and Portugal, are less likely to live in such households and more likely to be isolated.
Unfortunately it is not as simple as improving the schooling of children to stamp out illiteracy isolation. In the medium term, children and youth who do not gain literacy in school tend to be clustered in illiterate households. In the long term, older illiterates are less likely to be living with literate children.
This means that there is no substitute for targeting interventions at isolated illiterates. Such programmes should be targeted at old adults living in one- or two-person households in richer countries and at socio-economically marginalized young adults, often living in rural areas, in poorer countries.
Unfortunately, however, it is exactly these groups of people – the poorest rural young adults – who are the least likely to receive literacy programmes as the GEM Report has shown in previous editions.
Using DHS data to analyse 29 countries, our research in 2016 showed that 6.7% of men compared to 5.7% of women had ever participated in a literacy programme. The richest were also more likely to take part: Only 5.4% of the poorest had ever attended a literacy programme, compared with 7.1% of the richest. Even more frustrating is that far more adults who could already read (8.7%) had attended a programme compared to 5.2% of those who could not read at all.
While it is important not to arbitrarily draw a line between those who can and cannot read, as more complex assessments of literacy, such as LAMP and PIACC confirm, more conventional single-item literacy measures have the advantage of being administered more widely in surveys that collect information on every household member. In particular, this means that they can help identify the extent of subtleties such as isolated literacy – a fairly hidden, but important nuance in the battle to make sure every person is able to read.