Breaking the cycle of illiteracy

More than half of the world’s children struggle to read, and that’s causing inequalities beyond the developing world. By Saša Jankovic

Literacy is a skill so seemingly taken for granted in our society today, and yet illiteracy still poses one of the world’s greatest challenges. Indeed, the latest statistics from UNESCO, the United Nations Paris-based educational, scientific and cultural agency show the extent of the issue.

New estimates from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics claim that more than half of the entire planet’s children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels (MPLs) in reading and mathematics. That means 617 million young people who are unable to read or tackle basic mathematics with proficiency – which breaks down to more than 387 million children of primary school age (about 6 to 11 years old) and 230 million adolescents of lower secondary school age (about 12 to 14 years old).

According to UIS, this means that more than half – 56% – of all children won’t be able to read or handle mathematics with proficiency by the time they finish primary school. And the proportion is even higher for adolescents, with 61% unable to achieve minimum proficiency levels when they should be completing lower secondary school.

Moreover, while we in the West may think this is only an issue in the developing world, the UIS report demonstrates that it is also a problem here too. In Northern America and Europe, the estimated number of primary school-age children who are not achieving minimum proficiency levels is 3 million boys and 2 million girls.

What’s more, the new data signals a tremendous waste of human potential that perpetuates inequality between societies and genders, and could threaten progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Sustainable solutions
But there are organisations out there working on solutions. One is the charity Room to Read, which works in collaboration with local communities, partner organisations and governments to help primary school children in low-income countries develop literacy skills and a habit of reading. With a particular focus on literacy and gender equality in education, it also supports girls to complete secondary school with the relevant life skills to succeed there and beyond.

Speaking on a panel of notable women discussing ‘what literacy means to me’ at London’s Rosewood Hotel last week, Dr Geetha Murali, CEO of Room to Read, said the light at the end of the tunnel is that “it is possible to break the cycle of illiteracy in a single generation” because children who are literate grow up to become adults who can then “give back to their communities, their families and on a larger scale to their country.”

Gender learning gap
Gender disparity remains a disappointing trend when it comes to literacy, particularly as, according to UNESCO data shows that once girls gain access to school and the opportunity to learn they tend to pursue their studies and strive to perform.

Even in the UK, early access to literacy and books can have life-changing effects. Indeed, fellow panel member, journalist and founder of The Pool, Sam Baker, says she wouldn’t be where she is today without literacy. “I’m a passionate advocate for literacy and I cannot imagine my life without reading”, she says. “I had a normal small town British childhood, but if I hadn’t had books to escape into I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like. Reading enabled me to imagine another life beyond the one I had.”

No matter where you live in the world, being able to read is a vital piece of the toolkit for making a meaningful and successful life. As Dr Murali says, “learning to read at a young age is the gateway to reading to learn.”

Saša Jankovic is a freelance journalist writing about health, education, business and more at and on Twitter @SasaWrites

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