|NORRAG / NORRAG blog|
In this blogpost, published on the occasion of International Literacy Day, Rosa María Torres breaks down some of the key issues and challenges when it comes to debates and policies related to literacy. One of her key arguments is that dealing with illiteracy requires a lifelong learning policy framework that goes beyond schooling.
This blog is dedicated to Emilia Ferreiro.
▸ It is estimated that by 1950 36% of the world adult population was literate (Our World in Data). In 1958 UNESCO adopted the definition of literacy that became well known: “the ability of an individual to read and write with understanding a simple short statement related to his/her everyday life”. Literacy statistics have been collected since then with that definition in mind. Numeracy – basic mathematics: ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide – is often added as a separate category. Over the past few years the definition of what it means to be literate has expanded and become more complex, embracing digital literacy and multiple skill domains (UNESCO, 2023).
▸ The dichotomy illiterate/literate is now obsolete; it is acknowledged that there are different levels of mastery of the written language and different types of texts. Also, it is now clear that illiteracy is not only related to absence of schooling – so called “absolute” illiterates – but also to poor quality schooling.
▸ In 1964 UNESCO published the Declaration on Eradication of Illiteracy. The aspiration to eradicate illiteracy has been abandoned and substituted by reducing illiteracy (reducing illiteracy to half was, for example, one of the six goals of Education for All 1990-2015). The aspiration of universal literacy has also been abandoned; now the goal is reaching “all youth (15-24 years old) and a substantial proportion of adults” (SDG4) (Torres, 2017; see also Torres, 2013).
▸ Over the last decades there has been little progress with adult literacy statistics. Literacy for All was placed at the heart of Education for All; however, it was “one of the most neglected EFA goals”. In 2005 it was estimated that 770 million adults did not have basic literacy skills, two thirds of them women (EFA Global Education Monitoring Report Team, 2005). In 2023 they were 763 million. Real figures are probably higher since in many countries these continue to be perceptions and self-evaluations (Do you know to read and write? Yes/No). The United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012), coordinated by UNESCO, had little visibility and little impact on the situation of literacy worldwide. UNESCO’s Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy 2020-2025 acknowledged that “there are now more adults without literacy compared with 50 years ago, meaning that our efforts have not kept pace with population growth” (UNESCO, 2019). The Strategy considered four dimensions of learning: lifelong, lifewide, intersectoral, and universal.
Many challenges remain:
▸ Literacy is an ageless concept. It applies to children, youth, and adults. However, it continues to be associated mainly with adults. Statistics refer to persons beyond 15 years of age. Illustrations related to literacy/illiteracy generally portray adult people, even when lifelong learning is mentioned.
▸ Most people think of reading and writing as a learning process that takes place in childhood and in school; remedial and non-formal “second-chance” learning opportunities are arranged for those who could not learn in childhood. Literacy education remains a key mission of the school system, but many school systems are failing to accomplish such mission, especially for the poor and the most disadvantaged. (See Torres, 2013, on Emilia Ferreiro’s presentation)
▸ Dealing with illiteracy implies not only a “two pronged approach” – with children and with adults – but an integrated approach that views child and adult learning as a continuum, within a lifelong learning policy framework (see Torres, 2012). The Base Document that we elaborated for the United Nations Literacy Decade, and that was approved at a special session during the World Education Forum in Dakar (2000), adopted a lifelong and lifewide learning framework. Unfortunately, UNESCO decided to discard the document and go back to UNLD as adult literacy (Torres, 2011).
▸ It is believed that teaching and learning to read and write is easy. Short literacy and post-literacy campaigns and programmes are offered to young people and adults. So-called “relapse into illiteracy” is usually the result of weak and incomplete literacy processes, and of lack of materials and opportunities to read and write. Children are expected to be proficient readers after three or four years of going to school, regardless of the conditions and obstacles faced by millions of them. The term “learning poverty” proposed by the World Bank applies to “children who are unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10” (Saavedra, 2019).
▸ In 2013, when Education for All (1990-2000-2015) and the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) were coming to a close, it was “discovered” that millions of children worldwide were not able to read, write and calculate after four or more years of schooling (UNESCO, 2013; EFA Global Education Monitoring Report Team, 2014). UNESCO and other international organizations spoke of a “global learning crisis”. The International Commission on the Futures of Education (2021) spoke also of a “teaching crisis”. In fact, we are facing a global education crisis that involves not only the school system but the family, the community, the media, the workplace. This is a systemic crisis that precedes the pandemic and demands a radical transformation in many fronts (Torres, 2023). In 1991, in Latin America, at a regional ministerial UNESCO-OREALC meeting, Ministers of Education signed the Quito Declaration proposing a “new education model” and announcing the beginning of “a new era of educational development that responds to the challenges of productive transformation, social equity, and political democratization”. More than 30 years later the old model is still in place (Torres, 2014).
▸ ”Learning crisis” and “learning poverty” concepts are currently at the center of global education reform efforts. Both are centered around the school system. “Learning poverty” focuses on reading (it does not include writing). There is however plenty of knowledge showing that literacy – and reading in particular – start at home and in early childhood, and are highly sensitive to context, family, socio-economic and cultural issues. Availability of reading facilities (libraries, mobile libraries) and reading materials at home and in the community – letters, posters, newspapers, magazines, comics, books, catalogs, menus, movie and TV subtitles, calendars, signs, labels, graffiti, texts produced by children themselves (Torres, 2012) – makes a big difference. There is a strong correlation between educated mothers and children’s literacy acquisition and development. Improving children’s foundational learning implies going beyond the school system and paying attention to the family, the community, the availability of reading materials, language issues, parental literacy/education, play, informal learning, peer-to-peer learning, and poverty eradication.
Dr. Rosa Maria Torres del Castillo is an Ecuadorian education expert and social activist specialised in basic education, reading and writing, and lifelong learning. She has worked as education advisor for a range of civil society, non-governmental and international organizations, such as UNICEF and UNESCO. In 1988-1990 she was Pedagogical Director of the National Literacy Campaign “Monseñor Leonidas Proaño” and in 2003 she served as Minister of Education and Cultures, in Ecuador. She is the author of over 15 books and numerous articles on education and learning.