Literacy and Lifelong Learning: The Linkages

Fubiz
Rosa María Torres


Invited speaker. Conference and paper presented at the 2006 Biennale of ADEA
(Libreville, Gabon, March 27-31, 2006)


According to the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL-UNESCO), this was the first paper that discussed the linkages between Lifelong Learning and Literacy, and the only one until 2015.
See: Ulrike Hanemann, Lifelong literacy: Some trends and issues in conceptualising and operationalising literacy from a lifelong learning perspective, International Review of Education, July 2015.

Abstract 

This paper attempts to deal with misconceptions about literacy and to show the intimate relationship between literacy and lifelong learning. The goal is not eradicating illiteracy but ensuring literacy for all - literate families, literate communities, literate societies. Achieving this goal implies working simultaneously on four complementary fronts:

  • universal quality basic education for all children, placing literacy (acquisition, development and use) at the heart of school efforts and reforms;
  • ensuring effective literacy for all youth and adults, not only through specific programs for adults but also as part of family and community education efforts, and through all possible means;
  • promoting a literate environment and a literate culture at local and national level, stimulating not only reading but also writing, and engaging all institutions, forms and technologies related to literacy (e.g. libraries, schools, newspapers, radio, TV, digital technologies, etc.); and
  • dealing with poverty in a structural manner, not only through ad-hoc focalized interventions or compensations but through sound and fair economic and social policies. There is no way to achieve quality education for all and literacy for all without eliminating poverty, ensuring more egalitarian societies and promoting human development.[1]
    Lifelong Learning (LLL) means “learning throughout life”. This is what we all do, regardless of who we are, where we live, and whether we go to school or not. Thus, in a sense, there is nothing new about LLL. However, the current adoption and revival of LLL as a paradigm for education systems worldwide implies the recognition of the following: it is learning that matters, and not information, education or training per se; the emerging information and the knowledge society fundamentally imply building learning societies and learning communities; continuous learning is today essential for survival and for enhancing people’s quality of life, as well as for national human, social and economic development; there are many learning systems, places, means, modalities and styles; and it is necessary to ensure learning opportunities for all throughout life.

Introduction
[2]

This paper attempts to deal with misconceptions about literacy, and show the intimate relationship between literacy and lifelong learning. Youth and adult literacy have been neglected over the past two decades within national and international agendas. The Education for All goals (Jomtien in 1990 and Dakar in 2000) prioritized children and primary education. The Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) do not even include adult literacy within education goals. Recommendations against investing in adult literacy and adult education in general, promoted by the World Bank since the late 1980s with respect to developing countries, were based on i) scarce resources and the need to prioritize children’s education and primary school, and ii) the low cost-effectiveness of adult literacy programs.[3] Neither of these arguments is valid because children’s and adult education are intimately related and the low cost-effectiveness claim was not based on sound evidence and knowledge of the field.  This has been acknowledged and rectified in recent years by the World Bank (Lauglo, 2001; Oxenham and Aoki, 2001; Torres, 2004).[4]

The goal is not eradicating illiteracy but ensuring literacy for all in order to create literate families, communities and societies. Achieving this goal implies working simultaneously on four complementary fronts:

1. universal quality basic education for all children, placing literacy (acquisition, development and use) at the heart of school efforts and reforms;

2. ensuring literacy for all youth and adults, not only through specific programs for adults but also as part of family and community education efforts, and through all possible means;

3. promoting a literate environment and a literate culture at local and national level, stimulating not only reading but also writing, and engaging all institutions, forms and technologies related to literacy (e.g. libraries, schools, newspapers, radio, TV, digital technologies, etc.); and

4. dealing with poverty in a structural manner, not only through ad-hoc focalized interventions but also mainly through sound and fair economic and social policies. There is no way to achieve quality education for all and literacy for all without eliminating poverty, ensuring equity and promoting national human and economic development.[5]
 
Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning (LLL) has become a paradigm for education systems worldwide, implying that:
  • learning (not information, education or training per se) is what matters
  • the emerging information and the knowledge society fundamentally imply the building of learning societies and learning communities;
  • continuous learning is essential for survival and for enhancing people’s quality of life, as well as for national human, social and economic development;
  • there are many learning systems, places, means, modalities and styles;
  • learning opportunities for all must be ensured, throughout life.
Literacy and lifelong learning

The term literacy refers essentially to the ability to read and to write (numeracy is often added as a complement or a component of literacy). Although the term illiteracy and literacy have traditionally been used refer to 15 year-olds or older, learning to read and write is an ageless concept and learning process for children, youth and adults.

Social convention sees childhood as the “normal” age to become literate. People are supposed to learn to read and write during their “school-age” period. Such social convention assumes societies that effectively ensure children’s universal right to go to school that ensure the right to learn. However, that is not the case in most countries in the South and in many countries in the North. Millions of children do not have access to school at all or to a school that ensures the right to learn, or do not have the conditions to remain in school long enough to acquire solid reading and writing skills. Thus, millions of children, youth and adults are forced to learn to read and write when they are young or adults, through formal or non-formal “second chance” education options.

“School age” is not equivalent to “learning age.” Moreover, notions such as “late entry” to school or “over age”, which use age as a discriminatory factor, must be revised. Given the objective economic, social and educational conditions offered to the population, education and learning systems must assume lifelong learning as an inevitable reality, be open and flexible to accommodate the literacy needs of learners at any age.

Literacy acquisition and development in and out of school

It is commonly believed that people start to learn to read and write when they enter school or pre-primary school, and that such process ends with the last day of school. That belief is the result of lack of knowledge and prejudice. Abundant theoretical and empirical research informs us that The basis for literacy acquisition is rooted in early childhood.

Understanding the nature and role of the written language is a process that begins well before reaching “school age” and going to school. At 2-3 years old, children start building hypotheses about the written language and its social uses, by seeing or listening to writing and/or reading acts and materials around them (at home, in the street, on the radio, on television, etc). By the time they get to school, children have already strong ideas – many of them sound and valid - of what reading and writing in their own language(s) are about. This occurs not only among children coming from privileged families but also among children coming from poor families and poor literate contexts. Evidently, the context and stimuli determine important differences in children’s early introduction to literacy. [6]

School systems do not build on the previous knowledge children bring to school but ignore and despise it: the same is true for adult learners, although the need to respect and start from previous knowledge is much more emphasized in adult education than in child education). Longitudinal studies on child literacy acquisition processes reveal that  school often contributes to stopping children’s curiosity about language and a spontaneous desire to learn to read and write. Becoming literate turns out to be a difficult, painful experience for millions of children worldwide, a learning process that could be facilitated if policy makers, school administrators and teachers were more knowledgeable about literacy acquisition and about the home-school learning transition.

Literacy development goes far beyond the school system 

Traditionally, the world of education has associated literacy with schooling and improving literacy with teacher training and school reform. However, being able to read and write with understanding, for self-expression, information, communication and learning purposes, implies much more than going to school and having motivated teachers. Out-of-school factors are equally important for literacy development, facilitating or inhibiting learners’ desire and capacity to learn to read and write and to use the written language meaningfully in daily life. Economic, social, cultural and linguistic policies must converge if the target is a literate nation.

The family and the local community have a critical role in making literacy accessible, necessary, and enjoyable throughout life. Access to cultural activities, to a sport yard, to a library, a museum, a reading center, a cyber cafe, newspapers and mass media, etc, complements school life, enhances a literate and a learning environment for all, and can make an important difference in a person’s life and in the life and future of a whole community.

Often, many such resources exist in poor urban and rural areas but are not used properly, in a planned, coordinated and inter-sectoral manner for the benefit of all. The school or community library are meant only for school students, not for the entire community. If computers are available, they remain locked up at school rather than being accessible in a multi-purpose community reading and learning center. Adult literacy classes are often held under a tree while the school building remains underutilized. Newspapers hardly ever trespass school buildings even when there are no textbooks or interesting materials to stimulate students’ reading.

The school does not guarantee literacy acquisition

Illiteracy is generally associated with lack of access to school and continues to be identified with the out-of-school population. However, illiteracy is also related to access to poor quality formal and non-formal education. Abundant studies, statistics, and tests confirm over and over again that the school system is doing a poor job with regard to literacy education. 

Literacy remains the most important mission delegated by societies to school systems. This mission is now in crisis and under heavy scrutiny in the South and in the North where reading and writing results from (both public and private) schools have become a major national issue. National and international tests, most of which place a special emphasis on literacy skills, show consistently much lower reading and writing results than those expected in each specific country. So-called “developing countries” regularly occupy the last places in such international tests when compared to “developed countries”.[7]

The main problem lies evidently on the teaching side and on the conventional school structure and culture. Everything suggests that major changes are needed in the teaching of reading and writing in schools, but schools and teachers clearly need to be supported in their literacy mission with strong and renewed family, community and societal strategies.

Literacy is a trans-generational issue

Considerable evidence shows the importance of parents’ education – and especially of mothers - for children’s lives: health, nutrition, child care, protection, school attendance, etc. Adult and parental literacy are tightly linked to children’s literacy. In all regions and across countries and cultures, illiterate women acknowledge that one of their strongest motivations to learn to read and write revolves around the school and their children’s education.  They want to help them with school homework, feel more confident to approach the school, attend school meetings and speak with teachers. So important is parental education for children’s welbeing, that, as we have argued elsewhere, children’s right to basic education should include the right to educated parents.[8] 

Child and family literacy programs in developed countries stimulate parents to read to their children nightly before bedtime, something that millions of parents in developing countries cannot afford to do because they do not know how to read, because they have nothing to read or simply because they have no time.

Based more on prejudice than on consistent data, parental illiteracy has come to be considered a predictor of children’s school failure. In the framework of modern competition among schools for students’ academic results that are associated with incentives for teacher or school performance, a predictable situation is emerging and  spreading: public schools are selecting students to ensure high ratings.[9] Extreme poverty and parental illiteracy are a red light for school principals. There is also evidence that school repetition, a decision to a great extent taken by every teacher on unclear grounds, is often related to prejudice against poverty, racial status, and parental illiteracy.[10]

The trans-generational impact of literacy is also true in the relationship between teachers and students. Teachers who do not have reading habits and do not enjoy reading and writing cannot teach their students. Policies addressed to teachers’ literacy development, including the free distribution of newspapers to schools, book series produced for teachers at low cost, digital literacy, etc., are critical for transforming schools into reading institutions and to enhancing theirs literate environment. 

Literacy is a solid foundation for lifelong learning

Not all knowledge and learning depend on being able to read and write. In fact, a large portion of the information and knowledge that are essential for life and for cultural reaffirmation and renewal are learned without any formal education and are often transmitted orally from one generation to another at home, in the community, and in school. It is wrong to equate illiteracy and ignorance.

Nevertheless, the written language has a central role in schooling, in the building and transmission of knowledge, and in lifelong learning. Books continue to be the most important means for the preservation and transmission of knowledge. Despite the unprecedented expansion of the audiovisual culture, reading and writing remain at the core of information and communication media such as radio, television, film, or video. Digital technologies require proficient readers and writers. Combating the digital divide, by democratizing the access to and use of computers and other modern information and communication technologies (ICTs), implies a huge literacy effort worldwide.

Literacy is the most important passport to lifelong learning.  Being able to read and write marks a before and an after for school children. Metaphors used by adults who learn to read and write include “light”, “window” or “door.”  Reading and writing accompany people throughout life and enable them to keep informed and intellectually active.

Literacy is essential for human development and for improving the quality of life
"Human development is about much more than the rise or fall of national incomes. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus much more than economic growth, which is only a means – if a very important one - of enlarging people’s choices. Fundamental to enlarging these choices is building human capabilities – the range of things that people can do or be in life. The most basic capabilities for human development are to lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable, to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living, and to be able to participate in the life of the community. Without these, many choices are simply not available, and many opportunities in life remain inaccessible”. (UNDP 2001:9)

In recent years, literacy has been framed within the economic logic dominating the world and the education field in particular. Internationally, current dominant trends link adult literacy to “livelihoods” (Oxenham et.al. 2002), to “poverty alleviation” amongst the extremely poor and as a preventive strategy to “prevent children’s failure in school.”

However, attributing literacy per se the capacity to change people’s lives by impacting significantly on their income, employment, or poverty is not realistic. Today, basic literacy does not make a difference between getting and not getting a job, much less getting a good job. Unemployment is high and on the rise worldwide, especially in the South. Millions of high school graduates and professionals are unemployed and millions migrate to the North in search of better living conditions. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the possibility to break the cycle of  poverty in this region implies at least twelve years of schooling.[11]

And yet, literacy improves the quality of life of people in many and most profound ways, not necessarily economic in nature. As has been traditionally acknowledged, literacy is related to human dignity, self-esteem, liberty, identity, autonomy, critical thinking, knowledge, creativity, participation, empowerment, social awareness and social transformation, all of them important human satisfactions, beyond material conditions.

Adult and third-age learners often refer to reading and writing as “a companion,” “a weapon to fight loneliness,” “a means to travel without traveling.” Substituting the fingerprint with the writing of one’s own name is the most important act of dignity for an illiterate person, affected by shame and low self-esteem.

Literacy is also related to mental and psychological health. Neuropsychological research suggests that people who cultivate an active and complex mind throughout life – very much linked to reading and writing, as opposed to the passive activity of watching television – age well and are less exposed to diseases such as Alzheimer and dementia. In a comparative study between literate and illiterate elders in the Northern Manhattan community, illiterates obtained lower scores than literates on measures of naming, comprehension, verbal abstraction, orientation, and figure matching and recognition.[12]

Measuring the personal, family and social impact of literacy in terms of improving people’s quality of life implies going beyond narrow economic frameworks and indicators, identifying and creating new, more integral and qualitative indicators.  

Literacy is a lifelong learning process

For decades, people have considered that literacy acquisition occurs within a short period of time, that is, with a few years of schooling for children, a short literacy program or campaign for youth and adults. The idea that functional literacy requires four years of schooling, attributed to UNESCO, has been quoted and adopted by national and international policies worldwide. In fact, it was adopted in 2000 by the Millennium Development Goals that consider that the completion of primary education by the year 2015 is “reaching grade five”, an extremely modest goal and in many cases below the educational levels already being achieved in many countries in the South.

Four years of schooling, for children, youth or adults, is insufficient for ensuring sustainable literacy and basic education. A UNESCO Latin America regional study on functional literacy conducted in seven countries in the region (Infante, 2000) concluded that at least 6 or 7 years of schooling are required to deal meaningfully with reading and writing and that 12 years are needed to fully master them if they are used both within and outside the school, in different contexts including home, work, social relations, etc.

The accelerated expansion of schooling in the past thirty years in the South has expanded literacy and the literate population especially among the younger generations.  On the other hand, the accelerated expansion of modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) since the 1990s has further enhanced and diversified the need and the practice of reading and writing for millions of people, especially for youth. The definitions, needs and uses of literacy have become more and more complex, as a result of all these developments in the framework of the globalized, highly inequitable and competitive world that is emerging.

In other words, becoming literate can no longer be viewed as a specific period in anyone’s life but rather as a lifelong learning process in itself.  Multiple degrees and levels of mastery of the written language span illiterate and literate. Terms such as “basic literacy,” “initial literacy,” “functional literacy", "functional illiteracy,” “neo-literates,” “post-literacy,” etc., show the need to go beyond the usual dichotomy.
 
REFERENCES

Abadzi, Helen, (1994), What We Know about Acquisition of Adult Literacy: Is There Hope? World Bank Discussion Paper, No. 245. Washington: World Bank.
Carr-Hill, R. (ed). (2001), Adult Literacy Programs in Uganda: An Evaluation. Washington: The World Bank.
ECLAC/CEPAL, (2000), La brecha de la equidad. Una segunda evaluación. Santiago.  
Ferreiro, E., (2000), “Leer y escribir en un mundo cambiante," Exposición en el Congreso Mundial de Editores (Buenos Aires, 1-3 mayo) en Novedades Educativas No. 115, Buenos Aires.
Ferreiro, E.; Navarro, L.; Vernon, S.; Loperena, M.L.; Taboada, E.; Corona, Y.; Hope M.E.; Vaca, J., (1992), Los adultos no alfabetizados y sus conceptualizaciones del sistema de escritura, Cuadernos de Investigación Educativa, Nº 10.  México: DIE.
IBE-UNESCO/UNICEF, (1996),  School Repetition: A Global Perspective. Geneva.
Infante, I. (coord.). (2000), Alfabetismo funcional en siete países de América Latina. Santiago: UNESCO-OREALC.
Lauglo, John, (2001), Engaging with Adults: The Case for Increased Support to Adult Basic Education in Sub-Sahara Africa, Africa Region Human Development Working Paper Series. Washington D.C: The World Bank.
Lind, Agenta, Johnston, Anton, (1990),  Adult Literacy in the Third World: A Review of Objectives and Strategies. Stockholm: SIDA.
Manly, Jennifer J. et.al,. (1999), “The Effect of Literacy on Neuropsychological Test Performance in Non-demented, Education-matched Elders,” in The Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 5: 191-202 Cambridge University Press.
Oxenham, John., Aoki, Aya, (2001), Including the 900 Million+, Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
Oxenham, John; Diallo, A.H., Katahoire, A.R., Petkova-Mwangi, A. , Sall, O., (2002), Skills and Literacy Training for Better Livelihoods. A Review of Approaches and Experiences,  Washington: Africa Human Development Sector, Africa Region, The World Bank.
Torres, Rosa-María, (2005), Justicia económica y justicia social 12 tesis para el cambio educativo, Madrid: Movimiento Internacional Fe y Alegría/Entreculturas. 
Torres, Rosa-María (2004), Lifelong Learning in the South. Stockholm: Sida Studies No. 11.
Torres, Rosa-María (2001), Base Document for the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012) prepared for UNESCO, Basic Education Division: Paris.
Torres, Rosa-María, (1990), Evaluation Report, National Literacy Campaign “Monsignor Leonidas Proaño” 1988-1990, Quito: Minister of Education and Culture, and UNICEF.
http://www.fronesis.org/ecuador_cna.htm
Torres, Rosa-María, (1995), “Children’s right to basic education,” in: Education News, No. 14. New York: UNICEF. 
UNDP. 2001. Human Development Report 2001. New York.
UNESCO (2005), Literacy for Life: EFA Global Monitoring Report. Paris.
WORLD BANK (1995), Priorities and Strategies for Education, Washington, D.C.


[1] Literacy for all and education for all require trans-sectoral policies. See: Torres, Rosa María, Justicia económica y justicia social 12 tesis para el cambio educativo, Movimiento Internacional Fe y Alegría/Entreculturas, Madrid, 2005.
[3] Both arguments can be found in World Bank’s 1995 Priorities and Strategies for Education. The low cost-effectiveness argument was based on a single study (Abadzi 1994) commissioned by the WB, and the data used referred to the findings of the  Experimental World Literacy Program implemented between 1967 and 1972 in 11 countries (see Lind and Johnston, 1990).
[4] Lately, some WB-supported studies (see Carr-Hill, 2001, conducted in Uganda) concluded that adult (out-of-school) education may be more cost-effective than primary (school) education. This is a tricky argument that may lead to see adult and non-formal education as a substitute for children’s schooling.
[5] Literacy for all and education for all require trans-sectoral policies. Education policies must be intertwined with economic and social policies. See: Torres, Rosa María, Justicia económica y justicia social 12 tesis para el cambio educativo, Movimiento Internacional Fe y Alegría/Entreculturas, Madrid, 2005. 
[6] See for example the rich theoretical and empirical research by Emilia Ferreiro in the Latin American region and comparative studies with other countries and regions.
[7] See OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered to 15-year-olds in schools to measure reading, mathematical and scientific literacy, and problem-solving in life situations. http://www.pisa.oecd.org/  See also the International Adult Literacy Survey of 2001, where results in participating developing countries such as Chile were devastating.
[8] Torres, Rosa María, “Children’s right to basic education,” in: Education News, No. 14, UNICEF, New York, 1995. 
[9] In the Latin American context, Chile has the oldest system of school achievement evaluation and competition between schools and incentives associated with achievement and competition. That public school principals reject students from very poor backgrounds and/or having illiterate parents has triggered an alarm in the past few years. The same is true in other countries in the region that have similar policies, often following World Bank recommendations.
[11] See ECLAC/CEPAL 2000  
[12] See “Effect of literacy on neuropsychological test performance in non-demented, education-matched elders,” in The Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society (1999), 5: 191-202 Cambridge University Press.

Related texts in this blog» GLEACE, Letter to UNESCO on the Literacy Decade (2003-2012)
» Rosa María Torres, Literacy for All: A Renewed Vision ▸ Alfabetización para Todos: Una Visión Renovada
» Rosa María Torres, Lifelong Learning: moving beyond Education for All
» Rosa María Torres, From Literacy to Lifelong LearningDe la alfabetización al aprendizaje a lo largo de la vida
» Rosa María Torres, About "good practice" in international co-operation in education
» Rosa María Torres, Adult Literacy in Latin America and the Caribbean: Plans and Goals 1980-2015
» Rosa María Torres, Youth & Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean
» Rosa María Torres,
Formal, non-formal and informal learning

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