International Literacy Day

Thailand - Michel #3306i (2013)
Thailand – Michel #3306i (2013)

September 8 was declared International Literacy Day by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on October 26, 1966, at the 14th session of UNESCO’s General conference. It was celebrated for the first time in 1967. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. Celebrations take place in several countries.

Literacy is traditionally meant as the ability to read and write. In a modern world, this is one way of interpreting literacy. Another way is to look at it as knowledge and competence in a specific area, which is a broader definition. The concept of literacy has evolved in meaning. The modern term’s meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge, solve mathematical problems and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture. The concept of literacy is expanding in OECD countries to include skills to access knowledge through technology and ability to assess complex contexts. A person who travels and resides in a foreign country but is unable to read or write in the language of the host country would also be regarded by the locals as being illiterate.

UNESCO  defines literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society”.

Some 775 million adults lack minimum literacy skills; one in five adults are still not literate and two-thirds of them are women; 60.7 million children are out-of-school and many more attend irregularly or drop out.

According to UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report on Education for All (2006), South Asia has the lowest regional adult literacy rate (58.6%), followed by sub-Saharan Africa (59.7%). Countries with the lowest literacy rates in the world are Burkina Faso (12.8%), Niger (14.4%) and Mali (19%). The report shows a clear connection between illiteracy and countries in severe poverty, and between illiteracy and prejudice against women.

Three Lao girls sit outside their school, each absorbed in reading a book. This photo was taken after a rural school book party by Big Brother Mouse, a publishing and literacy project in Laos, which provides many children with their very first books. Photo taken on December 10, 2009..
Three Lao girls sit outside their school, each absorbed in reading a book. This photo was taken after a rural school book party by Big Brother Mouse, a publishing and literacy project in Laos, which provides many children with their very first books. Photo taken on December 10, 2009..

The key to literacy is reading development, a progression of skills that begins with the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words, and culminates in the deep understanding of text. Reading development involves a range of complex language underpinnings including awareness of speech sounds (phonology), spelling patterns (orthography), word meaning (semantics), grammar (syntax) and patterns of word formation (morphology), all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension.

Once these skills are acquired, the reader can attain full language literacy, which includes the abilities to apply to printed material critical analysis, inference and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information and insights from text as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought. The inability to do so is called illiteracy or analphabetism.

Celebrations of International Literacy Day have included specific themes, in line with Education For All goals and other United Nations programs such as the United Nations Literacy Decade. The celebration’s theme for 2007 and 2008 was “Literacy and Health”, with prizes awarded to organizations at the forefront of health education. This was also the thematic emphasis of the 2007–2008 biennium of the United Nations Literacy Decade. In particular, International Literacy Day 2008 had a strong emphasis on Literacy and Epidemics with a focus on communicable diseases such as HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria, some of the world’s forefront public health concerns. For 2009–2010 the emphasis was placed on “Literacy and Empowerment”, with special consideration to Gender Equality and the empowerment of women. The theme of the 2011–2012 celebrations was “Literacy and Peace”.

This year, 2018, the theme is ‘Literacy and Skills Development’. Despite progress made, literacy challenges persist, and at the same time the demands for skills required for work, evolve rapidly. International Literacy Day 2018 explores and highlights integrated approaches that simultaneously can support the development of literacy and skills, to ultimately improve people’s life and work and contribute to equitable and sustainable societies.

The following writers have supported UNESCO through the Writers for Literacy Initiative: Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Philippe Claudel, Paulo Coelho, Philippe Delerm, Fatou Diome, Chahdortt Djavann, Nadine Gordimer, Amitav Ghosh, Marc Levy, Alberto Manguel, Anna Moi, Scott Momaday, Toni Morrison, Érik Orsenna, Gisèle Pineau, El Tayeb Salih, Francisco Jose Sionil, Wole Soyinka, Amy Tan, Miklós Vámos, Abdourahman Waberi, Wei Wei, Banana Yoshimoto. Not only do the writers contribute to raising awareness to the problem of illiteracy along with the writers’ engagement, there arre various companies and charity organizations that supported the fight against illiteracy. Some supporters of International Literacy Day include the Global Development Research Center, Montblanc, the National Institute for Literacy, and Rotary International.

Literacy is thought to have first emerged with the development of numeracy and computational devices as early as 8,000 BCE. Script developed independently at least five times in human history in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus civilization, lowland Mesoamerica, and China.

Sumarian tablet with a bill of sale of a male slave and a building in Shuruppak, circa 2600 BC.
Sumarian tablet with a bill of sale of a male slave and a building in Shuruppak, circa 2600 BC.

The earliest forms of written communication originated in Sumer, located in southern Mesopotamia about 3500-3000 BCE. During this era, literacy was “a largely functional matter, propelled by the need to manage the new quantities of information and the new type of governance created by trade and large scale production”.[9] Writing systems in Mesopotamia first emerged from a recording system in which people used impressed token markings to manage trade and agricultural production.[10] The token system served as a precursor to early cuneiform writing once people began recording information on clay tablets. Proto-cuneiform texts exhibit not only numerical signs, but also ideograms depicting objects being counted.

Egyptian hieroglyphs emerged from 3300-3100 BCE and depicted royal iconography that emphasized power amongst other elites. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system was the first notation system to have phonetic values.

Writing in lowland Mesoamerica was first put into practice by the Olmec and Zapotec civilizations in 900-400 BCE. These civilizations used glyphic writing and bar-and-dot numerical notation systems for purposes related to royal iconography and calendar systems.

The earliest written notations in China date back to the Shang Dynasty in 1200 BCE. These systematic notations were found inscribed on bones and recorded sacrifices made, tributes received, and animals hunted, which were activities of the elite. These oracle-bone inscriptions were the early ancestors of modern Chinese script and contained logosyllabic script and numerals.

Indus script is largely pictorial and has not been deciphered yet. It may or may not include abstract signs. It is thought that they wrote from right to left and that the script is thought to be logographic. Because it has not been deciphered, linguists disagree on whether it is a complete and independent writing system; however, it is genuinely thought to be an independent writing system that emerged in the Harappa culture.

These examples indicate that early acts of literacy were closely tied to power and chiefly used for management practices, and probably less than 1% of the population was literate, as it was confined to a very small ruling elite.

Basic Education for Youth and Adults Project by the Ministry of Education in Ecuador, 2014. Photo courtesy of UNSESCO.
Basic Education for Youth and Adults Project by the Ministry of Education in Ecuador, 2014. Photo courtesy of UNSESCO.

According to social anthropologist Jack Goody, there are two interpretations that regard the origin of the alphabet. Many classical scholars, such as historian Ignace Gelb, credit the Ancient Greeks for creating the first alphabetic system (c. 750 BCE) that used distinctive signs for consonants and vowels. But Goody contests, “The importance of Greek culture of the subsequent history of Western Europe has led to an over-emphasis, by classicists and others, on the addition of specific vowel signs to the set of consonantal ones that had been developed earlier in Western Asia”.

Thus, many scholars argue that the ancient Semitic-speaking peoples of northern Canaan (modern-day Syria) invented the consonantal alphabet as early as 1500 BCE. Much of this theory’s development is credited to English archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who, in 1905, came across a series of Canaanite inscriptions located in the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem. Ten years later, English Egyptologist Alan Gardiner reasoned that these letters contain an alphabet, as well as references to the Canaanite goddess Asherah. In 1948, William F. Albright deciphered the text using additional evidence that had been discovered subsequent to Goody’s findings. This included a series of inscriptions from Ugarit, discovered in 1929 by French archaeologist Claude F. A. Schaeffer. Some of these inscriptions were mythological texts (written in an early Canaanite dialect) that consisted of a 32-letter cuneiform consonantal alphabet.

Another significant discovery was made in 1953 when three arrowheads were uncovered, each containing identical Canaanite inscriptions from twelfth century BCE. According to Frank Moore Cross, these inscriptions consisted of alphabetic signs that originated during the transitional development from pictographic script to a linear alphabet. Moreover, he asserts, “These inscriptions also provided clues to extend the decipherment of earlier and later alphabetic texts”.

The consonantal system of the Canaanite script inspired alphabetical developments in subsequent systems. During the Late Bronze Age, successor alphabets appeared throughout the Mediterranean region and were employed for Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic.

Action for Inclusive Education in Madagascar program, 2015. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.

ording to Goody, these cuneiform scripts may have influenced the development of the Greek alphabet several centuries later. Historically, the Greeks contended that their writing system was modeled after the Phoenicians. However, many Semitic scholars now believe that Ancient Greek is more consistent with an early form Canaanite that was used c. 1100 BCE. While the earliest Greek inscriptions are dated c. eighth century BCE, epigraphical comparisons to Proto-Canaanite suggest that the Greeks may have adopted the consonantal alphabet as early as 1100 BCE, and later “added in five characters to represent vowels”.

Phoenician, which is considered to contain the first “linear alphabet”, rapidly spread to the Mediterranean port cities in northern Canaan. Some archaeologists believe that Phoenician scripture had some influence on the developments of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets based on the fact that these languages evolved during the same time period, share similar features, and are commonly categorized into the same language group.

When the Israelites migrated to Canaan between 1200 and 1001 BCE, they also adopted a variation of the Canaanite alphabet. Baruch ben Neriah, Jeremiah’s scribe, used this alphabet to create the later scripts of the Old Testament. The Early Hebrew alphabet was prominent in the Mediterranean region until Chaldean Babylonian rulers exiled the Jews to Babylon in the sixth century BCE. It was then that the new script (“Square Hebrew”) emerged and the older one rapidly died out.

The Aramaic alphabet also emerged sometime between 1200 and 1001 BCE. As the Bronze Age collapsed, the Aramaeans moved into Canaan and Phoenician territories and adopted their scripts. Although early evidence of this writing is scarce, archaeologists have uncovered a wide range of later Aramaic texts, written as early as the seventh century BCE. Due to its longevity and prevalence in the region, Achaemenid rulers would come to adopt it as a “diplomatic language”. The modern Aramaic alphabet rapidly spread east to the Kingdom of Nabataea, then to Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula, eventually making its way to Africa. Aramaic merchants carried older variations of the language as far as India, where it later influenced the development of Brahmi scripture. It also led to the developments of Arabic, Pahlavi (an Iranian adaptation), “as well as for a range of alphabets used by early Turkish and Mongol tribes in Siberia, Mongolia and Turkestan”. Literacy at this period spread with the merchant classes and may have grown to number 15-20% of the total population.

The Aramaic language would die out with the spread of Islam and with it, its influence of Arabic.

Student at school as part of the Patani Malay-Thai Bi-Multilingual Education Project conducted by the Research Institute for Language and Cultures of Asia of the Mahidol University in southern Thailand, 2016. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.
Student at school as part of the Patani Malay-Thai Bi-Multilingual Education Project conducted by the Research Institute for Language and Cultures of Asia of the Mahidol University in southern Thailand, 2016. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.

Until recently it was thought that the majority of people were illiterate in ancient times. However, recent work challenges this perception. Anthony DiRenzo asserts that Roman society was “a civilization based on the book and the register”, and “no one, either free or slave, could afford to be illiterate”. Similarly Dupont points out, “The written word was all around them, in both public and private life: laws, calendars, regulations at shrines, and funeral epitaphs were engraved in stone or bronze. The Republic amassed huge archives of reports on every aspect of public life”. The imperial civilian administration produced masses of documentation used in judicial, fiscal and administrative matters as did the municipalities. The army kept extensive records relating to supply and duty rosters and submitted reports. Merchants, shippers, and landowners (and their personal staffs) especially of the larger enterprises must have been literate.

In the late fourth century the Desert Father Pachomius would expect literacy of a candidate for admission to his monasteries:

they shall give him twenty Psalms or two of the Apostles’ epistles or some other part of Scripture. And if he is illiterate he shall go at the first, third and sixth hours to someone who can teach and has been appointed for him. He shall stand before him and learn very studiously and with all gratitude. The fundamentals of a syllable, the verbs and nouns shall all be written for him and even if he does not want to he shall be compelled to read.

In the course of the 4th and 5th century the Churches made efforts to ensure a better clergy in particular among the bishops who were expected to have a classical education, which was the hallmark of an socially acceptable person in higher society (and possession of which allayed the fears of the pagan elite that their cultural inheritance would be destroyed). Even after the remnants of the Western Roman Empire fell in the 470s literacy continued to be a distinguishing mark of the elite as communications skills were still important in political and Church life (bishops were largely drawn from the senatorial class) in a new cultural synthesis that made “Christianity the Roman religion,” However, these skills were less in needed than previously in the absence of the large imperial administrative apparatus whose middle and top echelons the elite had dominated as if by right. Even so, in pre-modern times it is unlikely that literacy was found in more than about 30-40% of the population. The highest percentage of literacy during the Dark Ages was among the clergy and monks who supplied much of the staff needed to administer the states of western Europe.

Dutch schoolmaster and children, oil on panel painting by Adriaen van Ostade, 1662
Dutch schoolmaster and children, oil on panel painting by Adriaen van Ostade, 1662

Post-Antiquity illiteracy was made much worse due to a lack of suitable writing medium. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the import of papyrus to Europe ceased. Since papyrus perishes easily and does not last well in the wetter or damper European climate, the alternative was parchment which was expensive and accessible only by the Church and upper layers of the society. Once paper was introduced into Europe in the 11th century in Spain. Its use spread north slowly over the next four centuries. Increased literacy saw a resurgence because of its use. By the 15th century paper had largely replaced parchment except for many luxury manuscripts (some of which used paper).

The Reformation stressed the importance of literacy and being able to read the Bible. The Protestant countries were the first to attain full literacy; Scandinavian countries were fully literate in the early 17th century. The Church demanded literacy as the prerequisite for marriage in Sweden, this further propagating full literacy.

Literacy data published by UNESCO displays that since 1950, the adult literacy rate at the world level has increased by 5 percentage points every decade on average, from 55.7 per cent in 1950 to 86.2 per cent in 2015. However, for four decades, the population growth was so rapid that the number of illiterate adults kept increasing, rising from 700 million in 1950 to 878 million in 1990. Since then, the number has fallen markedly to 745 million in 2015, although it remains higher than in 1950 despite decades of universal education policies, literacy interventions and the spread of print material and information and communications technology (ICT). However, these trends have been far from uniform across regions.

Farm Security Administration one-room school in Alabama, circa 1935

Available global data indicates significant variations in literacy rates between world regions. North America, Europe, West Asia, and Central Asia have achieved almost full adult literacy (individuals at or over the age of 15) for both men and women. Most countries in East Asia and the Pacific, as well as Latin America and the Caribbean, are above a 90% literacy rate for adults. Illiteracy persists to a greater extent in other regions: 2013 UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) data indicates adult literacy rates of only, 67.55% in South Asia and North Africa, 59.76% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In much of the world, high youth literacy rates suggest that illiteracy will become less and less common as younger generations with higher educational attainment levels replace older ones. However, in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where the vast majority of the world’s illiterate youth live, lower school enrollment implies that illiteracy will persist to a greater degree. According to 2013 UIS data, the youth literacy rate (individuals ages 15 to 24) is 84.03% in South Asia and North Africa, and 70.06% in Sub-Saharan Africa. That being said, literacy has rapidly spread in several regions in the last twenty-five years.

On a worldwide scale, illiteracy disproportionately impacts women. According to 2015 UIS data collected by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, about two-thirds (63%) of the world’s illiterate adults are women. This disparity was even starker in previous decades: from 1970 to 2000, the global gender gap in literacy would decrease by roughly 50%. In recent years, however, this progress has stagnated, with the remaining gender gap holding almost constant over the last two decades. In general, the gender gap in literacy is not as pronounced as the regional gap; that is, differences between countries in overall literacy are often larger than gender differences within countries. However, the gap between men and women would narrow from 1990 onwards, after the increase of male adult literacy rates at 80 per cent.

 [Chad, Federation of Associations for the Promotion of Guera Language, Mother Tongue Literacy in the Guera Region programme 2013
Outdoor literacy class conducted in Chad under the Mother Tongue Literacy in the Guera Region program, 2013. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the lowest overall literacy rates, also features the widest gender gap: just 52% of adult females are literate, and 68% among adult men. Similar gender disparity persists in two other regions, North Africa (86% adult male literacy, 70% adult female literacy) and South Asia (77% adult male literacy, 58% adult female literacy).

The 1990 World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien, Thailand, would bring attention to the literacy gender gap and prompt many developing countries to prioritize women’s literacy. In the past decade, global development agendas would increasingly address the issue of female literacy. For example, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would center his 2010 International Literacy Day speech around the theme “Empowering Women Through Literacy Empowers Us All,” emphasizing the broad societal progress that higher female literacy rates could promote.

In many contexts, female illiteracy co-exists with other aspects of gender inequality. Martha Nussbaum, for example, make illiterate women more vulnerable to becoming trapped in an abusive marriage, given that illiteracy limits their employment opportunities and worsens their intra-household bargaining position. Moreover, Nussbaum links literacy to the potential for women to effectively communicate and collaborate with one another in order “to participate in a larger movement for political change.”

Social barriers prevent expanding literacy skills among women and girls. Making literacy classes available can be ineffective when it conflicts with the use of the valuable limited time of women and girls. School age girls, in many contexts, face stronger expectations than their male counterparts to perform household work and care after younger siblings. Generational dynamics can also perpetuate these disparities: illiterate parents may not readily appreciate the value of literacy for their daughters, particularly in traditional, rural societies with expectations that girls will remain at home.

New teachers at a training center in Mali. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.
New teachers at a training center in Mali. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.

A 2015 World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women review of academic literature would conclude that child marriage, which predominantly impacts girls, tends to reduce literacy levels. A 2008 analysis of the issue in Bangladesh found that for every additional year of delay in a girl’s marriage, her likelihood of literacy would increase by 5.6 percent. Similarly, a 2014 study found that in sub-Saharan Africa, marrying early would significantly decrease a girl’s probability of literacy, holding other variables constant. A 2015 review of the child marriage literature therefore would recommend marriage postponement as part of a strategy to increase educational attainment levels, including female literacy in particular.

While women and girls comprise the majority of the global illiterate population, in many developed countries a literacy gender gap exists in the opposite direction. Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has consistently indicated the literacy underachievement of boys within member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In view of such findings, many education specialists have recommended changes in classroom practices to better accommodate boys’ learning styles, and to remove any gender stereotypes that may create a perception of reading and writing as feminine activities.

Many policy analysts consider literacy rates as a crucial measure of the value of a region’s human capital. For example, literate people can be more easily trained than illiterate people, and generally have a higher socioeconomic status; thus they enjoy better health and employment prospects. The international community has come to consider literacy as a key facilitator and goal of development. In regard to the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2015, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning has declared the “central role of literacy in responding to sustainable development challenges such as health, social equality, economic empowerment and environmental sustainability.”

Brain pathways for mirror discrimination learning during literacy acquisition. Upper: The Visual Word Form Area [VWFA] (in red) presents mirror invariance before alphabetization and mirror discrimination for letters after alphabetization. A key aspect of alphabetization is to set in place the audio-visual mapping known as “phoneme-grapheme correspondence,” whereby elementary sounds of language (i.e., phonemes) are linked to visual representations of them (i.e., graphemes) (Frith, 1986). Lower: During alphabetization, the VWFA can receive top-down inputs with discriminative information from phonological, gestural (handwriting) and speech production areas and bottom-up inputs from lower level visual areas. All these inputs can help the VWFA to discriminate between mirror representations, thus correctly identifying letters to enable a fluent reading.

Illiterate people are generally less knowledgeable about hygiene and nutritional practices, an unawareness which can exacerbate a wide range of health issues. Within developing countries in particular, literacy rates also have implications for child mortality; in these contexts, children of literate mothers are 50% more likely to live past age 5 than children of illiterate mothers. Public health research has thus increasingly concerned itself with the potential for literacy skills to allow women to more successfully access health care systems, and thereby facilitate gains in child health.

For example, a 2014 descriptive research survey project correlates literacy levels with the socioeconomic status of women in Oyo State, Nigeria. The study claims that developing literacy in this area will bring “economic empowerment and will encourage rural women to practice hygiene, which will in turn lead to the reduction of birth and death rates.”

Literacy can increase job opportunities and access to higher education. In 2009, the National Adult Literacy agency (NALA) in Ireland commissioned a cost benefit analysis of adult literacy training. This concluded that there were economic gains for the individuals, the companies they worked for, and the Exchequer, as well as the economy and the country as a whole—for example, increased GDP. Korotayev and coauthors have revealed a rather significant correlation between the level of literacy in the early 19th century and successful modernization and economic breakthroughs in the late 20th century, as “literate people could be characterized by a greater innovative-activity level, which provides opportunities for modernization, development, and economic growth”.

While informal learning within the home can play an important role in literacy development, gains in childhood literacy often occur in primary school settings. Continuing the global expansion of public education is thus a frequent focus of literacy advocates.[52] These kinds of broad improvements in education often require centralized efforts undertaken by national governments; alternatively, local literacy projects implemented by NGOs can play an important role, particularly in rural contexts.

Funding for both youth and adult literacy programs often comes from large international development organizations. USAID, for example, steered donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Global Partnership for Education toward the issue of childhood literacy by developing the Early Grade Reading Assessment. Advocacy groups like the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education have frequently called upon international organizations such as UNESCO, the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank to prioritize support for adult women’s literacy. Efforts to increase adult literacy often encompass other development priorities as well; for example, initiatives in Ethiopia, Morocco, and India have combined adult literacy programs with vocational skills trainings in order to encourage enrollment and address the complex needs of women and other marginalized groups who lack economic opportunity.

A group reading session in Ethiopia, 2016. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.
A group reading session in Ethiopia, 2016. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.

In 2013, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning published a set of case studies on programs that successfully improved female literacy rates. The report features countries from a variety of regions and of differing income levels, reflecting the general global consensus on “the need to empower women through the acquisition of literacy skills.” Part of the impetus for UNESCO’s focus on literacy is a broader effort to respond to globalization and “the shift towards knowledge-based societies” that it has produced.[59] While globalization presents emerging challenges, it also provides new opportunities: many education and development specialists are hopeful that new information and communications technologies (ICTs) will have the potential to expand literacy learning opportunities for children and adults, even those in countries that have historically struggled to improve literacy rates through more conventional means.

The Human Development Index, produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), uses education as one of its three indicators; originally, adult literacy represented two-thirds of this education index weight. In 2010, however, the UNDP replaced the adult literacy measure with mean years of schooling. A 2011 UNDP research paper framed this change as a way to “ensure current relevance,” arguing that gains in global literacy already achieved between 1970 and 2010 meant that literacy would be “unlikely to be as informative of the future.” Other scholars, however, have since warned against overlooking the importance of literacy as an indicator and a goal for development, particularly for marginalized groups such as women and rural populations.

Unlike medieval times, when reading and writing skills were restricted to a few elites and the clergy, these literacy skills are now expected from every member of a society. Literacy is a human right essential for lifelong learning and social change. As supported by the 1996 Report of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century, and the 1997 Hamburg Declaration:

Literacy, broadly conceived as the basic knowledge and skills needed by all in a rapidly changing world, is a fundamental human right. (…) There are millions, the majority of whom are women, who lack opportunities to learn or who have insufficient skills to be able to assert this right. The challenge is to enable them to do so. This will often imply the creation of preconditions for learning through awareness raising and empowerment. Literacy is also a catalyst for participation in social, cultural, political and economic activities, and for learning throughout life.

Students studying at agadguru School in Nepal, 2013. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.

Traditionally, literacy is the ability to use written language actively and passively; one definition of literacy is the ability to “read, write, spell, listen, and speak”. Since the 1980s, some have argued that literacy is ideological, which means that literacy always exists in a context, in tandem with the values associated with that context. Prior work viewed literacy as existing autonomously.

Some have argued that the definition of literacy should be expanded. For example, in the United States, the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have added “visually representing” to the traditional list of competencies. Similarly, in Scotland, literacy has been defined as: “The ability to read, write and use numeracy, to handle information, to express ideas and opinions, to make decisions and solve problems, as family members, workers, citizens and lifelong learners”. It is argued that literacy includes the cultural, political, and historical contexts of the community in which communication takes place.

A basic literacy standard in many places is the ability to read the newspaper. Increasingly, communication in commerce and in general requires the ability to use computers and other digital technologies. Since the 1990s, when the Internet came into wide use in the United States, some have asserted that the definition of literacy should include the ability to use tools such as web browsers, word processing programs, and text messages. Similar expanded skill sets have been called multimedia literacy, computer literacy, information literacy, and technological literacy. Some scholars propose the idea multiliteracies which includes Functional Literacy, Critical Literacy, and Rhetorical Literacy.

Students in the Ganokendra Programme at Dhaka Ahsania Mission in Bangladesh, 2013. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.

“Arts literacy” programs exist in some places in the United States. Visual literacy also includes the ability to understand visual forms of communication such as body language, pictures, maps, and video. Evolving definitions of literacy often include all the symbol systems relevant to a particular community.

Other genres under study by academia include critical literacy, media literacy, ecological literacy and health literacy[89] With the increasing emphasis on evidence-based decision making, and the use of statistical graphics and information, statistical literacy is becoming a very important aspect of literacy in general. The International Statistical Literacy Project is dedicated to the promotion of statistical literacy among all members of society.

Given that a large part of the benefits of literacy can be obtained by having access to a literate person in the household, some recent literature in economics, starting with the work of Kaushik Basu and James Foster, distinguishes between a “proximate illiterate” and an “isolated illiterate”. The former refers to an illiterate person who lives in a household with literates and the latter to an illiterate who lives in a household of all illiterates. What is of concern is that many people in poor nations are not just illiterates but isolated illiterates.

Ethnic groups learning to read in Thailand. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.

Teaching English literacy in the United States is dominated by a focus on a set of discrete decoding skills. From this perspective, literacy—or, rather, reading—comprises a number of subskills that can be taught to students. These skill sets include phonological awareness, phonics (decoding), fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Mastering each of these subskills is necessary for students to become proficient readers.

From this same perspective, readers of alphabetic languages must understand the alphabetic principle to master basic reading skills. For this purpose a writing system is “alphabetic” if it uses symbols to represent individual language sounds,[92] though the degree of correspondence between letters and sounds varies between alphabetic languages. Syllabic writing systems (such as Japanese kana) use a symbol to represent a single syllable, and logographic writing systems (such as Chinese) use a symbol to represent a morpheme.

There are any number of approaches to teaching literacy; each is shaped by its informing assumptions about what literacy is and how it is best learned by students. Phonics instruction, for example, focuses on reading at the level of the word. It teaches readers to observe and interpret the letters or groups of letters that make up words. A common method of teaching phonics is synthetic phonics, in which a novice reader pronounces each individual sound and “blends” them to pronounce the whole word. Another approach is embedded phonics instruction, used more often in whole language reading instruction, in which novice readers learn about the individual letters in words on a just-in-time, just-in-place basis that is tailored to meet each student’s reading and writing learning needs. That is, teachers provide phonics instruction opportunistically, within the context of stories or student writing that feature many instances of a particular letter or group of letters. Embedded instruction combines letter-sound knowledge with the use of meaningful context to read new and difficult words. Techniques such as directed listening and thinking activities can be used to aid children in learning how to read and reading comprehension.

Poster for International Literacy Day 2018
Poster for International Literacy Day 2018

In a 2012 proposal, it has been claimed that reading can be acquired naturally if print is constantly available at an early age in the same manner as spoken language. If an appropriate form of written text is made available before formal schooling begins, reading should be learned inductively, emerge naturally, and with no significant negative consequences. This proposal challenges the commonly held belief that written language requires formal instruction and schooling. Its success would change current views of literacy and schooling. Using developments in behavioral science and technology, an interactive system (Technology Assisted Reading Acquisition, TARA) would enable young preliterate children to accurately perceive and learn properties of written language by simple exposure to the written form.

In Australia, a number of State governments have introduced Reading Challenges to improve literacy. The Premier’s Reading Challenge in South Australia, launched by Premier Mike Rann has one of the highest participation rates in the world for reading challenges. It has been embraced by more than 95% of public, private and religious schools.

Although there is considerable awareness that language deficiencies (lacking proficiency) are disadvantageous to immigrants settling in a new country, there appears to be a lack of pedagogical approaches that address the instruction of literacy to migrant English language learners (ELLs). Harvard scholar Catherine Snow (2001) called for a gap to be addressed:

The TESOL field needs a concerted research effort to inform literacy instruction for such children … to determine when to start literacy instruction and how to adapt it to the LS reader’s needs.

Female students taking part in a class within a gender equality program in Mozambique, 2015. Photo courtesy of UNESCO

The scenario becomes more complex when there is no choice in such decisions as in the case of the current migration trends with citizens from the Middle East and Africa being relocated to English majority nations due to various political or social reasons. Recent developments to address the gap in teaching literacy to second or foreign language learners has been ongoing and promising results have been shown by Pearson and Pellerine (2010) which integrates Teaching for Understanding, a curricular framework from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A series of pilot projects had been carried out in the Middle East and Africa. In this work significant interest from the learners perspective have been noticed through the integration of visual arts as springboards for literacy oriented instruction. In one case migrant women had been provided with cameras and a walking tour of their local village was provided to the instructor as the women photographed their tour focusing on places and activities that would later be used for writings about their daily life. In essence a narrative of life. Other primers for writing activities include: painting, sketching, and other craft projects (e.g. gluing activities).

A series of pilot studies were carried out to investigate alternatives to instructing literacy to migrant ELLs, starting from simple trials aiming to test the teaching of photography to participants with no prior photography background, to isolating painting and sketching activities that could later be integrated into a larger pedagogical initiative. In efforts to develop alternative approaches for literacy instruction utilizing visual arts, work was carried out with Afghan laborers, Bangladeshi tailors, Emirati media students, internal Ethiopian migrants (both laborers and university students), and a street child.

Women learning to read in Morocco, 2012. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.

It should be pointed out that in such challenging contexts sometimes the teaching of literacy may have unforeseen barriers. The EL Gazette reported that in the trials carried out in Ethiopia, for example, it was found that all ten of the participants had problems with vision.[102] In order to overcome this, or to avoid such challenges, preliminary health checks can help inform pre-teaching in order to better assist in the teaching/learning of literacy.

In a visual arts approach to literacy instruction a benefit can be the inclusion of both a traditional literacy approach (reading and writing) while at the same time addressing 21st Century digital literacy instruction through the inclusion of digital cameras and posting images onto the web. Many scholars feel that the inclusion of digital literacy is necessary to include under the traditional umbrella of literacy instruction specifically when engaging second language learners.

Other ways in which visual arts have been integrated into literacy instruction for migrant populations include integrating aspects of visual art with the blending of core curricular goals.

Teaching people to read and write, in a traditional sense of the meaning (literacy) is a very complex task in a native language. To do this in a second language becomes increasingly more complex, and in the case of migrants relocating to another country there can be legal and policy driven boundaries that prohibit the naturalization and acquisition of citizen ship based on language proficiency. In Canada for example despite a debate, language tests are required years after settling into Canada.

The EL Gazette reviewed Pellerine’s work with migrant English language learners and commented: “Handing English language learners a sponge and some paint and asking them to ‘paint what comes’ might not appear like a promising teaching method for a foreign language. But Canadian EL instructor and photographer Steve Pellerine has found that the technique, along with others based around the visual arts, has helped some of his most challenging groups to learn”. Visual arts have been viewed as an effective way to approach literacy instruction — the art being primers for subsequent literacy tasks within a scaffolded curricular design, such at Teaching for Understanding (TfU) or Understanding by Design (UbD).

Thailand - Michel #3306i (2013) sheet of 10
Thailand – Michel #3306i (2013) sheet of 10
Thailand – Thailand Post #TH2013-1004SH (2013) souvenir sheet. Image courtesy of Siam Stamp Shop

On April 23, 2013, Thailand Post released a single 5-baht stamp marking the selection by UNESCO designating Bangkok as the 13th World Book Capital. The city was selected by a committee made up of representatives from the three main branches of the publishing world and UNESCO, which met at the organization’s Paris headquarters on June 27, 2012, to vote. Bangkok was chosen “for its willingness to bring together all the various stakeholders in the book supply chain and beyond, actors involved in the publication chain for a range of projects proposed, for its community-focused and the high level of its commitment through the proposed activities.”

The design by Mrs. Parichart Thatsanatheb of Thailand Post Co., Ltd. includes the Bangkok World Book Capital 2013 logo as well as the front cover of Kaew Jom Kan (The Mischievous Kaew), a literary work written by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. The regular stamp was printed using multicolor lithography by printer Joh. Enschedé Security Print in the Netherlands. The accompanying souvenir sheet, sold for 20 baht, reproduced a portion of the book in miniature using the episode of “The Great Musician” which may be easily read with the naked eye. It was the first time that a stamp had been printed with such a miniature book. Thailand gave this issue the order number TH2013-1004. The German-language Michel stamp catalogue has assigned #3306i to the regular stamp; I couldn’t find the Scott numbers (it’s time to update my catalogues!).

At the time of Bangkok’s selection was announced, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, said:

I would like to congratulate Bangkok for the rich and varied programme it has prepared and committed itself to, that gives special emphasis to young people, marginalized groups and the development of reading for all. With its accent on cooperation and dialogue, at local, national and international levels, this programme responds perfectly to the objectives of the World Book Capital project, which is attracting the attention of an increasing number of cities worldwide.

Bangkok World Book Capital 2013 logo

The World Book Capital selection committee includes representatives from the International Publishers Associations (IPA-UIE), the International Booksellers Federation (IBF), the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and UNESCO. Each year, this Committee attributes the title to a city which has committed itself to promote books and reading, and to highlight the vitality of literary creativity. The nomination does not imply any financial prize, but an exclusively symbolic acknowledgement of the best program dedicated to books and reading.

Bangkok city governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra announced plans that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) intended to encourage reading among Thais and that City Hall would embrace the World Book Capital designation by organizing activities to promote reading throughout the year it held the title. At the time, surveys had found that Bangkokians read an average of only five books per year. City governor Sukhumbhand said he hoped to increase this amount to 10-15 books a year.

Data as graphed in a Thai-language publication about Bangkok World Book Capital 2013

However, His Majesty the late King Bhumiphol Adulyadej assisted in the announcement that the national average for Thailand was a dismal two books per year with no mention of a breakdown for Bangkok or any of the provinces. While a literacy promotion campaign was launched at the time, it seems to have stalled with King Bhumiphol’s death in October 2016.

The BMA planned to build a comic book museum and a central city library, as well as increasing the number of community-based libraries, but none of this seems to have happened. The city library would have been at City Hall and was expected it to be ready in two years. No work has been done on this that I’ve been able to find. Deputy City Clerk Manit Techaapichok said many teenagers were obsessed with smartphones and had turned their backs on the printed word. The challenges faces by teachers in Thailand are great and bright spots are few.

Flag of Thailand, 1917-date
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