‘Literacy is much more than an educational priority – it is the ultimate investment in the future …. We wish to see a century where every child is able to read and to use this skill to gain autonomy.’
Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General
UNESCO has designated September 8 as International Literacy Day. Created in 1945 to mobilise for education as a human right, build intercultural understanding and pursue scientific cooperation, here is what UNESCO has to say about literacy:
‘Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy.
‘Literacy is at the heart of basic education for all, and essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy. There are good reasons why literacy is at the core of Education for All (EFA).
‘A good quality basic education equips pupils with literacy skills for life and further learning; literate parents are more likely to send their children to school; literate people are better able to access continuing educational opportunities; and literate societies are better geared to meet pressing development.’
It is a timely reminder, as we start our new school year and thousands of young children embark on the journey of adventure that is learning to read and write, that literacy is so much more than decoding, comprehending, spelling, grammar and composition. Literacy is about thinking and learning in ways that change the way a person understands and engages with the world. It is about ideas, inspiration, emotion and discovery. It is about taking responding and wondering, challenging and being challenged. And as such, it is essential that every child in our schools is given whatever help it takes for them to be successful. Our government has rightly placed literacy, and success in literacy for those children most at risk of failing, at the top of the agenda for our schools.
Learning to be literate is too important to allow it to become a confusing battleground of ideologies, as adults fight to establish their preferred method as the only way to teach children to read. As Dorothy Morrison, of Ohio State University, put it:
‘The key is to be concerned more with the child than with the program…. No program should be included or thrown out at the expense of another. The key is to monitor the progress of each child to see what works and to be flexible enough to switch quickly if one approach is not working.’
For more than 20 years schools in England have ensured that all their children would be successful readers and writers by age six through Reading Recovery. Reading Recovery teachers start from the individual child, identifying precisely what they know and how they think about and engage with reading and writing, and design a programme specifically for that child. The evidence is now compelling that these children continue to achieve at good and average levels of literacy to at least age 11, and most likely well beyond into senior school.
Yet there are still those who balk at the cost of providing a child with a highly qualified teacher, for a short intervention of one-to-one lessons, as an alternative to allowing them to fail.
Now that we know almost all children can catch up with their peers within six months, and go through their school life as good readers and writers, if we say that the intervention to achieve this is too expensive, we are saying that some children are only entitled to a low budget education which does not include literacy. Who would want that for their child?