Posted tagged ‘literacy’

The literacy imperative

May 15, 2017

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.

Escaping disadvantage: literacy and numeracy

July 11, 2011

International statistics on literacy in various countries around the world contain a curiosity: almost any country in the western hemisphere you’ve ever visited or even thought about has an adult literacy rate of 99 per cent. The reason for this is that most developed countries no longer collect data for literacy, and therefore an assumption is made that in all these countries 99 pr cent of adults are literate. Whether this is really true is another matter. It depends to some extent, of course, on how you define literacy.

In fact, we know that an appreciable number of young adults leave school in these countries with what one might regard as basic reading and writing skills, but without full functioning literacy. They will struggle with anything more complex than elementary tasks. When you then add numeracy the problems are even worse. In countries in which employment, or at any rate employment with even modest career prospects, depends increasingly on high skill levels, literacy and numeracy shortfalls are a serious matter.

It is an issue that, thankfully, is now receiving more government attention. In Ireland the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, last week launched a new strategy for literacy and numeracy, which will involve adjustments to teacher training and some changes to the school curriculum (particularly at the Junior Certificate stage). The Minister explained his thinking as follows:

‘This is an issue of equality. Without the skills of literacy and numeracy, a young person or adult is often denied full participation in society.  They may be condemned to poorly paid jobs or unemployment and a lifetime of poverty and exclusion.  This is why I am convinced that ensuring all our young people acquire good literacy and numeracy skills is one of the greatest contributions that we can make towards achieving equality and social justice in our country.’

Meanwhile in Scotland the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, recently told the Scottish Parliament that he would shortly be putting forward a new ‘literacy action plan’.

Inadequate literacy and numeracy at the earlier stages of education undermines higher education and, ultimately, economic progress and social equality. It is time that we stopped assuming that almost all our population is literate and numerate, and to initiate measures that will ensure that there is not just a basic awareness reading, writing and mathematics, but that people across all sections of the population display real confidence in these vital skills.