It’s International Literacy Day today, 8 September 2020. Literacy has, literally, never been so important.
Around the world, UNESCO tells us, 773 million young people do not have access to the learning that will enable them to read and write. And yet, national and international policy declarations consistently emphasise the transformative power of literacy for individuals, families and societies. This impact is not just economic: it is also intellectual, cultural and at its heart political. Ultimately, literacy is about who is able to participate in political discourse, and who is excluded from that discourse.
This short video provides some concise but powerful information about global literacy standards, and what needs to be done. As UNESCO succinctly put it, the current Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated a ‘gap between policy discourse and reality’. This gap between sentiment and practice can be found everywhere, including the UK. Here, we have an education system that pre-pandemic was resulting about 10-15% of school leavers being functionally illiterate.
This is despite the science of how to teach reading being clear, both for younger children and for older students. Instead, we face three main barriers:
Denial: a refusal to believe that there is a problem, a refusal to accept the scale of the problem, or an acceptance of the problem while insisting that it doesn’t really matter.
Delusion: mythical beliefs that some children are inherently unable to read [insert hypothesised deficit]; that simply exposing them to print will enable them to learn to read; that children don’t learn to read because they don’t have sufficient motivation.
Distraction: our system focuses on competing for outcomes – not every school can be above average; not every student can get ‘good’ grades. Some students must get those lower grades. So schools focus their energies on getting the good grades and often ignore, or simply pity, those ‘at the bottom’. Bluntly put, we ensure that some student are available to soak up those lower grades by leaving them as poor readers.
It’s a day for all of us to reflect on whether that is the kind of system, or kind of society, that we want to have.
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