Fifty years ago the first “World Literacy Day” was celebrated, a day dedicated by UNESCO to reinforce the commitment of governments and societies around the world to eradicating illiteracy and strengthen education as a path to better living conditions for everyone. Have we kept that commitment?
Without a doubt, Latin America and the Caribbean have made significant efforts to dramatically reduce illiteracy rates: in practically all countries in the region more than 90% of the population can be considered literate. This goal is, however, still not a reality for everyone. countries like Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti and Nicaragua still face significant challenges.
While it is important to look back to the work done in previous years to improve literacy rates across the region, our outlook into the future should not ignore the issue of functional illiteracy. As data from UNESCO’S Third Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (TERCE) as well as OECD’s PISA assessments show, a large proportion of children and youths are unable to comprehend the texts they read and have difficulties expressing themselves. For children, poor reading skills are an obstacle for successful academic progression, making them likely to fail and repeat grades and even dropping out of school. For youths, they limit their chances to finish secondary school, attend university and become part of the labor market.
Not surprisingly, children and youths who cannot develop basic reading and writing skills are at risk of becoming adults who see their work opportunities reduced, having a negative influence on their self-esteem. As surveys carried out by the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), adequate reading skills are linked to better income, work stability, health, and active civic participation among adults.At the same time that we look back to the work done in previous years to improve literacy rates across the region, our outlook into the future should not ignore the issue of functional illiteracy. Millions of children, youths, and adults still lack the skills to read, write and perform basic math effectively.
In recent decades, in an effort to massively expand access, promote all kinds of competencies and skills from primary level, we have somehow forgotten the basic promise made by education.
Renewing the commitment to make of Latin America and the Caribbean a region free of illiteracy means going back to the basics: assuring that all children learn to read effectively, to express themselves both in written and oral form, and to solve essential math problems.
This involves bringing into the classroom better teaching techniques and training teachers to take advantage of them. It means providing schools and classrooms with free educational resources for students to practice reading and writing. Many children, particularly, those who live in rural or inner-city areas, still lack access to basic resources such as textbooks and pencils.
Renewing the promise we have made also entails focusing efforts to align our curricula so that, while still pushing and challenging students to learn a wide range of subjects, they successfully accomplish the main goal of developing basic reading, writing, and math skills, particularly at the primary level. Experiences such as the ones in the Minas Gerais state in Brazil or the “Todos a Aprender” program in Colombia have achieved significant results through strategies aimed at developing basic skills.
Work to end illiteracy must also include, naturally, reorganizing teaching staff inside schools so that the best teachers are dedicated to early grades; similarly, it should include rethinking class sizes so that teachers in early grades have less students per classroom and can therefore dedicate more time to each student.
On paper, the promise of literacy has been renovated through Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. Now, more than ever, we need to transcend the written word and turn it into reality, so that all citizens can receive an education, learn how to read and write, and perform basic maths, but overall, so they can be empowered to actively participate in the shaping of their own future.