Today is International Literacy Day. On this day we celebrate the role that literacy plays in our lives. We also reflect on what literacy means to us all, individually, locally, nationally and globally.
There is a marked increase in interest among policy makers about literacy, much of it driven by the OECD’s PIAAC study. Its league tables, ranking countries by the literacy and numeracy proficiency of their working age populations, have attracted welcome policy attention. However, a focus on comparative proficiency levels has limited value. All of the countries involved have uncomfortably large populations of adults with literacy and numeracy skills at or below Level 1. From PIAAC we also know that the make-up of the ‘low-skilled’ population is different in each country – and that provides a more fruitful focus for our attention.
This year UNESCO has a focus on what literacy means in the 21st century. At NRDC we have been engaged with others in the UK and internationally to try and understand both the supply of literacy and numeracy skills among the population, but also the demands placed on their literacy and numeracy skills: in the workplace, at home and in the many other settings in which people engage with an increasingly textual world.
The driving force for policymakers in England is the belief that good literacy is required to improve productivity among the workforce. The IOE’s National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) has been working with Ipsos Mori on a study for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills of the impact of English and maths on English employers.
The use of literacy and numeracy skills in the workplace is complex; different jobs, and the various elements within them, involve a range of literacy and numeracy practices, with workers often learning the specific skills they need for their job from peers and co-workers. Employees consistently report that they have adequate skills to do their jobs. What we see in the workplace is that we often work with others in ways that maximize our strengths and allow us to learn from them. We also see how workplaces can be adapted to remove the demand for literacy and numeracy or to scaffold its use.
Despite the policy focus on the workplace, we have continued to work with emergent adult readers on reading for pleasure. Those less confident with their reading may get great joy from reading novels, biographies or other texts in supportive, collaborative environments. They use adult experience and expertise to develop reading confidence, skills and practices gradually and communally – and in doing so are more able to tackle some of life’s other challenges, such as job interviews or finding better heating deals.
If we think about literacy in 2014 we need to consider mobile communications. People who never read a book and may see themselves as non-readers, may happily tap away at a smart-phone or tablet. We have looked at how learners ‘doing’ literacy work on a computer may see it as IT (‘I’m good at that’ ) as opposed to literacy ‘I’m not good at that’. Is reading a page of a book the same as a newspaper as a screen on a PC or screen on a smart phone? And if not, is digital literacy a new form of literacy, or literacy in a new form?
And finally, it’s worth remembering that the NRDC has long been at the avant-garde of Europe’s thinking about adult literacy, and today more than ever, with its leadership role in the new EC-funded European literacy policy network ELINET, is cementing its place as a hub for the sharing of ideas and information with colleagues across Europe. We are not alone in struggling with these problems and the only intelligent way forward is to work with like-minded organisations across the continent and, increasingly, the world.
The underlying idea of International Literacy Day is that the acquisition of literacy is a human right. We would certainly agree with that, and suggest that an important stage on the road to such a noble goal is to increase our understanding of what literacy actually means and involves in the 21st century.