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TC's Lesley Bartlett Reflects on the Importance of Literacy and the Work Remaining

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Lesley Bartlett

Lesley Bartlett

International Literacy Day: Recommitting Ourselves to Literacy for All
By Lesley Bartlett
Associate Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University

On Saturday, September 8, the world marked International Literacy Day, offering us an opportunity to reflect on the importance of literacy and the work still to be done.

Literacy, “the great enabler,” correlates with other important capabilities. Research suggests that a child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive to age 5, and that educated mothers are fifty percent more likely to immunize their children. Educated parents are more likely to send their children to school and can better support them in their schoolwork. Higher levels of literacy correlate with safer health behaviors, such as accessing health services and condom use to prevent the transmission of STDs. Literacy allows people to pursue better-paying jobs. Most importantly, literacy is a fundamental human right, a capability and skill that affords other opportunities.
Though we often discuss literacy in binary terms, as either literate or illiterate, in fact literacy is a continuum of skills and capacities. Although we need to concentrate efforts and resources on people who lack basic skills (what is sometimes called emergent literacy), it is important to remember that all people can and should continuously develop their capacities to read and write.

While we have made much progress toward Literacy for All since 1965 when UNESCO declared International Literacy Day, significant work remains to be done. One in four adults around the world lack basic literacy skills; two-thirds of those 793 million adults are women. As part of the Education for All movement, global development organizations committed themselves to addressing adult literacy, but this area has seen remarkably little investment. Children are not receiving the education they need to develop literate capabilities. Over 61 million children of primary school age around the world are unable to go to school, and in many low income countries the majority of students who remain in school for four years still don’t learn to read and write. In sub-Saharan Africa, ten million children drop out of primary school each year, inhibiting the development of their literacy skills.

To address these challenges, teachers everywhere must be educated to use solid literacy pedagogy, and they need and deserve teaching and learning materials, especially reading materials, to support this important work. This is particularly important in multilingual environments, as research suggests that people should be taught to read and write in their home language first, while they are simultaneously expanding their oral capacity in the language of wider communication. The expansion of literacy also requires collaboration from parents and community members, who can establish community libraries, book clubs, and after-school and weekend opportunities for literacy learners to hear stories, play word games, and read and write.

On this International Literacy Day, let us commit ourselves to supporting policies, programs, and pedagogies that will enhance literacy instruction for not only children but also youth and adults, and to identifying the resources necessary for such an effort.

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This piece appeared in Spanish in Noticias en Desarrollo, a publication of the University of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia. Bartlett, Associate Professor of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, was invited to submit the piece in celebration of International Literacy Day.


The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.

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