Since 1967, September 8 has been celebrated as International Literacy Day, with the goal of focusing attention on the need to improve literacy worldwide. As students, parents, and teachers settle into their back to school routines, it is worth looking at the status of literacy both at home and around the world.
According to the fact sheets from the International Reading Association, an estimated 860 million of the world’s adults do not know how to read or write—more than twice the entire United States population. More than 100 million children globally lack access to education. Illiteracy plays a role in a damaging cycle of poverty, poor health, and a lack of mobility. In countries with a literacy rate below 55 percent, the average per capita income is $600. Geography plays a huge role in this cycle: 98 percent of non-literates live in a developing country. About 52 percent of non-literates live in India and China, and the continent of Africa has a literacy rate of under 60 percent. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNSECO) also provides compelling information on the extent of this problem globally.
Either out of naiveté or a desire to believe the problem hasn’t reached our shores, it is easy to think of illiteracy as a problem “over there.” In reality, though, Americans whose literacy skills are never fully developed lag behind fully literate peers in a number of ways. Research from ProLiteracy Worldwide finds that one half of all adults in federal and state correctional institutions in America cannot read or write at all, and reading problems are seen in 85 percent of juvenile offenders. Health costs for individuals with low literacy skills are four times higher than those with individuals with high level literacy skills. Students with poor literacy skills may struggle in a number of subjects and some will eventually drop out before high school completion, a grim outcome when the income gap between those with a bachelor’s degree and those without is ever growing.
Starting children early on the road to literacy is an important step in helping develop these skills. Recognizing this importance, NIEER has several recommended resources on developing early literacy skills in the early years, including:
- A policy brief, “Early Literacy: Policy and Practice in the Preschool Years,” by Dorothy Strickland and Shannon Ayers.
- “Hooked on Literacy: Why Dorothy Strickland Sees Language as Job One,” a Preschool Matters interview with Dorothy Strickland.
- “What Leads to Literacy?,” a feature story from Preschool Matters on some of the factors most likely to indicate later literacy achievement.
- A book review of Literacy Leadership in Early Childhood: An Essential Guide.
- The volume Handbook of Early Literacy Research edited by Susan B. Neuman and David K. Dickinson.
For the literate, we cannot remember what it was like before letters automatically formed into words and words into sentences. We cannot turn off our ability to read and cannot imagine being unable to read our homework, a grocery list, or even street signs. For millions, though, this is their reality. Ensuring high levels of literacy attainment, beginning with the earliest years, both at home and abroad pays dividends in promoting educational attainment and creating a more capable workforce. Improving literacy rates is a massive goal which requires more than one day of activism, but today is be a good time to start. And what better place to start than with early interventions?
- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER