The literacy imperative

The history of social progress, of public health, of prosperity has all been closely connected with the advance of literacy. Societies with high literacy rates are capable of social and technological progress that evades those with low literacy. The fact, for example, that the Central African Republic has a literacy rate of 37 per cent, while in Germany it is 100 per cent, gives you a very close idea of the difference in wellbeing between the two countries.

Literacy itself has become more complex. It has always been discussed alongside numeracy (which in turn strongly affects scientific capacity), but increasingly literacy is seen to include digital literacy in the information technology age. But even ‘traditional’ literacy is not always straightforward: employers in western developed countries often complain that people looking for employment are inarticulate and unskilled in basic writing tasks. In explaining this state of affairs it is sometimes suggested that ‘progressive’ learning methods have undermined literacy. For the generation entering school in the 1970s and 1980s, children were often given books in which, without basic spelling and phonetic instruction, they were encouraged to associate written words with pictures and related context (a programme known as ‘real books’). But this, it is argued, makes literacy depend on remembering how words ‘look’ rather than the ability to make connections between combinations of letters and sounds. It has been suggested by some that this pedagogical fashion did at least instil in young people a respect for and love of books; though whether it supported basic literacy is more questionable.

I do not myself belong to the tribe of nostalgia pedlars who believe there was a golden age (probably in the 1950s) when everyone could read and write perfectly. It was never perfect. Nevertheless, we do well to keep a real focus on literacy, because so much else depends on it. The attainment gap between rich and poor is directly connected with literacy.

Those who think that graduates today lack literacy often blame the universities. There are certain remedial initiatives that universities can undertake to help students who enter higher education with literacy problems, but overall the issue needs to be addressed at a much earlier age if such methods are to be effective. In Scotland the government is supporting some pilot programmes in primary schools to improve vocabulary – and that is where the initiatives need to be undertaken.

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3 Comments on “The literacy imperative”

  1. Vince Says:

    As an Irishman I found the switch in the head that connects written words with meanings and sounds somewhat disconnected. And I suspect I’m far from the only one. We learn the written words of Oxford and Cambridge but we speak a dialect far closer to how Spencer wrote. While in Scotland you have the issue that is similar. Scott as he wrote is closer to the spoken word than anything they are expressing via pen or keyboard. American beyond the rarefied air of the university and New Yorker where Oxbridge is dominant is an odd amalgam of German transposed into English with accents of Ireland and Scotland. So for the most part kids are expected to learn a new language as well as being expected read it and write it.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    There seems to be little doubt that improved literacy can contribute to economic growth; reduce poverty; reduce crime; promote democracy; increase civic engagement; prevent diseases; enhance cultural diversity; lead to lower birth rates and confer personal benefits such as increased self-esteem, confidence and empowerment. And yet according to a report by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Project Literacy, called 2027: Human vs Machine Literacy.
    “human literacy rates have stalled since 2000 leaving 758 million adults worldwide and almost two million Brits illiterate, five million of whom have a literacy rate below that expected of an 11-year-oldr old.”
    I found particularly interesting the data regarding investment in AI technologies, including natural language processing, speech recognition, and image recognition, which reached $47.2 billion in 2015 while the 2017 U.S. Federal Education Budget for schools (pre-primary through secondary school) was of $40.4 billion.

    This is not about winning the literacy race with the machines, although the idea does make for some good headlines http://www.irishnews.com/magazine/2017/03/10/news/humans-vs-machines—who-would-win-the-literacy-race–961262/
    it is about recognising that human literacy rates remain dangerously stagnant even in developed countries – the University of Hamburg found I 2011 that approximately 7.5 million or 14 % of the work force German are suffering from illiteracy. https://sites.psu.edu/bohemians/2014/03/31/illiteracy-level-of-germany-and-france/

    As the post correctly argues, it is not by looking back at a golden age of literacy (which never was) that lies the answer, rather in strategic investments in education and by working in partnership with technology. In an age of post-truth and alternative facts this is a *moral* imperative.


  3. When I entered high school in 1964 the school had altered its catchment, to take in overspill estates That change probably has its own story of politics and economics.
    Altered catchment meant the school abandoned such things as basic grammar teaching, as well as a wide range of cultural activities.
    I was vaguely aware by that age that I hungered for that basic background, as well as looking forward to the annual Gilbert and Sullivan event. That had all gone.
    Consequently the learning of these basics in later years has proved more difficult, and less easy to assimilate.
    On the other hand, the Grammar School alternative fostered a divisive and elitist mind set, that set back general literacy acquirement.


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