Reading the past, writing the future

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The Rosetta Stone, featuring Hieroglyphic, Demotic and Greek, portrays the rich history of literacy, and was key to deciphering the Ancient Egyptian language and script. Photo: FlickR/’Rosetta stone by Kosuth’ Le.Mat

08.09.2016 – Without literacy, this article could never have been written let alone read. A skill dating back to prehistory, how is it that so many are still deprived of literacy?

Literacy, referring to the abilities to read and write text, is a vital skill. Only since the late 19th century has literacy had such a narrow definition; it also retains its earlier meaning to be ‘familiar with literature’ or, more generally, ‘well educated, learned’.

International Literacy Day in 2016 has been given the theme “Reading the Past, Writing the Future”. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, a conference is taking place on 8-9 September at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris. In combination with the fact that 2016 is the first year for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals including number 4, which aims to achieve literacy and numeracy targets for all youth and a substantial proportion of adults by 2030, this promises to be a powerful event. At the same time the Global Alliance for Literacy (GAL) will be launched, to make all major stakeholders pull together to promote literacy as a foundation for learning.

The provision of basic skills improves not only adults’ chances of employment, but also supports their personal development, enabling them to become ‘more satisfied with their lives’, asserted Dr. Maja Makovec Brenčič, Slovenian Minister of Education, Science and Sport, during the European Basic Skills Network (EBSN) in June 2016.

Understanding medical instructions is vital. Photo: FlickR/ ‘Tamiflu’ François Rejeté

However, as long as 1 in 5 adolescents and 1 in 5 adults in Europe lack the literacy skills to understand the instructions on medication, the benefits of literacy are too far away for too many. The dangers of illiteracy extend to us all- for example, rural farmers’ inability to process agricultural information leads to inappropriate use of pesticides, which harms the environment and consumers.

Illiteracy disproportionately affects women: the majority of the world’s 872 million people illiterate are women and girls, a ratio that has remained stubbornly unchanged for at least the past 20 years. SDG 5 puts gender equality and women’s empowerment at the forefront of efforts for global progress.

Woman reading. Photo: FlickR/’The simple joys of life can be done alone’ Steve Baker

Furthermore, older people are missing out on many of the initiatives. The vision of literacy is aligned with lifelong learning opportunities, and while special attention is paid to youth, adult education must be implemented to improve literacy rates for women and the rest of the population. The third edition of the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education will be launched at the Paris conference.

The SDGs to end illiteracy and gender disparities in education by 2030 are mutually beneficial; it is in the interest of improving literacy levels to educate girls and women, and increasing gender equality through schooling will help literacy goals. This intersectionality is being recognised during the aforementioned conference, where a High‐level Panel is due to identify the relations between literacy and other SDGs and explore possibilities for effective collaboration.

2015 winner of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy: Juan Luis School. Photo: UN/ ©Juan Luis Vives School

International Literacy Prizes will be awarded at the conference to people with outstanding solutions that can drive literacy towards achieving the 2030 Education Agenda.

In the words of a learner from the award-winning ‘Literacy for People Deprived of Liberty’ programme at the Juan Luis Vives School of Valparaiso, “the surest way towards freedom is education”.