With the start of a brand-new school year and a renewed focus on education, September hails the annual celebration of National Literacy Month in the United States and International Literacy Day on Sept. 8.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — better known as UNESCO — is a specialised agency that has long recognised literacy as a key element in education and a fundamental human right. This year, UNESCO will mark its 51st International Literacy Day with a celebratory global literacy conference themed “Literacy in a Digital World.”
UNESCO mapped the literacy progress of 50 countries that were seen to have achieved significant advancement in literacy and recently released its findings in a 2017 report titled “Reading the Past, Writing the Future.”
Of the 50 countries included in the UNESCO report, interestingly, 14 had organised national literacy campaigns or programs since 2000. Although each national campaign had its own origins and was organised in a different manner, the common features of these successful campaigns were political will, governance, reaching large numbers of people and increasing diversification of approaches to fostering literacy. The report concludes that for a national literacy campaign to result in successful implementation, political will needs to be accompanied by “institutional measures and budget commitments as part of the governance structures that are put in place.”
In addition, recognising that a variety of approaches are needed through a more “demand-driven process” is key, highlighting the importance of identifying and addressing the learning needs of different groups in a community.
At a basic level, “literacy” is the ability to read, write, understand and communicate well. However, the concept of literacy has evolved in today’s digital age to include the reading and decoding skills required to function in a technological society. According to the 2017 UNESCO report, two key notions have developed through the evolution of literacy: that literacies are now “multiple and diverse” and that they are “part of a much larger process of lifelong learning.”
Literacy is now seen as more essential than ever before to keep up in the digital age.
Education consultant Marc Prensky coined the term “digital natives” to describe modern students as “native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet.”
Prensky controversially argues that “digital immigrant” educators who grew up in a non-digital, pre-internet culture often struggle to understand the learning needs of modern digital native students who have a different way of thinking and processing information in their native media-saturated environment. He contends that traditional teaching methods are unsuitable for today’s students, and he reiterates the need for teaching and learning practices to move forward with the times.
Whether or not technology can provide a means for the initial acquisition of literacy skills is yet to be seen, but the notion that technology can serve to reinforce learned skills is well documented. The real challenge for educators seems to be how to connect modern students’ digital knowledge and capabilities to academic content in order to prepare them for the dynamic global marketplace of tomorrow.
In this digital age, from the minute we wake and reach for our smart phones, there is little that we do in a day that does not require a basic level of literacy. Literate individuals are empowered — they have the ability to participate fully in society, gain from being lifelong learners and take full advantage of opportunities in their lives. Conversely, those who missed out on learning basic literacy skills at a young age face an uphill, often insurmountable struggle for the rest of their lives.