About the event
For over 40 years now, UNESCO has been celebrating International Literacy Day by reminding the international community that literacy is a human right and the foundation of all learning. UNESCO uses this day to draw attention to their Writers for Literacy Initiative which, through authors such as Margaret Attwood and Paulo Coelho, raises awareness for the fight against illiteracy.
This is a day to highlight the importance of literacy to development, education and poverty reduction. One of the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 4 is ensuring all young people achieve literacy and that adults who lack these skills are given the opportunity to acquire them. Literacy gives individuals the freedom to attain high levels of education, to access literature independently and to participate fully in civil society. Literacy rates are typically lowest for those most marginalised already. For example, UNESCO predicts that the COVID-19 pandemic caused 11 million young women and girls to leave formal education for good.
How to approach it
In the western world literacy is often taken for granted. In order to give your students a more global perspective on literacy, help them to see how mass literacy rates are a relatively modern concept. In 1976 global literacy rates were an average of 67%, in 2018 the average had risen to 86%. In 1976, it’s estimated that just over half of all women could read. Despite improvements, low literacy rates still persist, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where the average literacy rate is less than 60%.
Help students to see that literacy is a public good equivalent to food, housing or energy and that being literate is a privilege not everyone has. Ask students: What things can we do when we can read? What things can’t we do? Show that literacy allows us to participate in civil life, widen our world view with literature, and access education. You could mention that there are direct links to literacy rates and support for democracy as well as correlations between illiteracy, poverty and incarceration.
It’s hard to find someone in the UK who can’t read today. But, 100’s of years ago it would have been much easier. That’s because many didn’t have the same kind of education we do now. Some children had to skip school and go straight to work, many women weren’t able to go to school at all. Why do you think it’s good to be able to read? What kind of things does reading allow you to do? What things would be difficult to do?