International Literacy Day

Today is the International Literacy Day. Literacy is a very important as without it, an individual cannot engage in our day-to-day life. Most commonly defined as the ability to read and write, Literacy is not as simple as it sounds. Reading and writing abilities vary across different cultures and contexts, and these too are constantly shifting. Today, reading encompasses complex visual and digital media as well as the printed material. We need to be literate to navigate our daily life, including using our phones, signs outside our homes, prices in a store and many more which we use and do without really thinking too much of it. But beyond the functional level, literacy plays a vital role in transforming people into socially engaged citizens. Being able to read and write means being able to keep up with current events, communicate effectively, and understand the issues that are shaping our world.

International Literacy Day celebrated each year on 8 September, was declared by UNESCO on 26 October 1966 and celebrated for the first time in 1967. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies with celebrations taking place in several countries. About 775 million 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 of 2006, South Asia has the lowest regional adult literacy rate at 58.6%, followed by sub-Saharan Africa at 59.7%. Countries with the lowest literacy rates in the world are Burkina Faso at 12.8%, Niger at 14.4% and Mali at 19%. The report shows a clear connection between illiteracy and countries in severe poverty, and between illiteracy and prejudice against women.

The 2021 edition of the International Literacy Day or the ILD will be celebrated under the theme of Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide. The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted the learning of children, young people and adults at an unprecedented scale. It has also magnified the pre-existing inequalities in access to meaningful literacy learning opportunities, disproportionally affecting 773 million non-literate young people and adults. Youth and adult literacy were absent in many initial national response plans, while numerous literacy programmes have been forced to halt their usual modes of operation.

Even in the times of global crisis, efforts have been made to find alternative ways to ensure the continuity of learning, including distance learning, often in combination with in-person learning. Access to literacy learning opportunities, however, has not been evenly distributed. The rapid shift to distance learning also highlighted the persistent digital divide in terms of connectivity, infrastructure, and the ability to engage with technology, as well as disparities in other services such as access to electricity, which has limited learning options.

The pandemic, however, was a reminder of the critical importance of literacy. Beyond its intrinsic importance as part of the right to education, literacy empowers individuals and improves their lives by expanding their capabilities to choose a kind of life they can value. It is also a driver for sustainable development. Literacy is an integral part of education and lifelong learning premised on humanism as defined by the Sustainable Development Goal 4. Literacy, therefore, is central to a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the worst disturbance to education and training systems in a century, with the longest school closures affecting more than 1.6 billion learners at its peak time. By November 2020, the average child had lost 54 percent of a year’s contact time, which could be interpreted as the loss of over a year’s learning if the time of forgetting what was previously acquired is counted. The pandemic and its repercussions have also magnified the pre-existing inequalities in access to meaningful literacy learning opportunities, disproportionally affecting 773 million non-literate young people and adults. With low or no reading and writing skills, they tend to be more vulnerable in managing their health, work, and life. At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis amplified the centrality of literacy to people’s life, work and lifelong learning. Reading and writing skills are essential, for instance, to access life-saving information and sustain livelihoods. In addition, the need for digital skills, which are part of today’s literacy skills, have been recognized for distance learning, a digitally transformed workplace, and participation in a digitalized society. While there is no single internationally agreed definition, digital skills are broadly understood as a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately in an increasingly technological and information-rich environment. Various aspects of digital skills are increasingly becoming indispensable to be literate. However, many young people and adults are digitally non-literate, including those who lack basic reading and writing skills. In Europe, 43 percent of adults lack the basic digital skills required to participate in distance digital learning. As acquisition of digital skills involves complex cognitive processes, these emerging skills demand calls for ensuring an adequate level of reading and writing skills, the integration of digital skills into literacy programmes, if appropriate, and the consideration of the inter-relations between these skills, kinds of technology and teaching approaches to be adopted, as well as learners’ motivation, life situations, contexts, and cultures.

ILD 2021 will explore how literacy can contribute to building a solid foundation for a human-centred recovery, with a special focus on the interplay of literacy and digital skills required by non-literate youth and adults. It will also explore what makes technology-enabled literacy learning inclusive and meaningful to leave no one behind. By doing so, ILD2021 will be an opportunity to reimagine future literacy teaching and learning, within and beyond the context of the pandemic.

ILD2021 will be celebrated across the world to uphold the right to literacy and foster the acquisition of literacy and digital skills by youth and adults for a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Some key questions that ILD 2021 will ask will include questions on what are inclusive and good policies, measures and interventions to put literacy, and possibly also digital skills, at the heart of a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and to narrow the digital divide and how can the learning of digital skills be integrated into technology-enabled literacy programmes in a meaningful manner as well as how can governments and other agencies mobilise adequate technical and financial support for the promotion of literacy programmes, including the ones that integrate digital skills learning?

Hopefully the efforts that ILD2021 undertakes will increase awareness of the importance of literacy and digital skills for a human-centred recovery and possible ways to make policies, measures and interventions for youth and adult literacy better and more inclusive to counter the digital divide and key issues are identified and new ideas generated for reimagined literacy teaching and learning that integrate literacy and digital skills.

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