Literacy for All
Panel discussion highlights issues on combating illiteracy at home and around the world. By Kim Greene
The International Literacy Association (ILA) declared April 14 as Leaders for Literacy Day with the goal of inspiring collective action to address global literacy. The day included both online Twitter chats (#AgeofLiteracy), as well as a panel discussion at the Institute of International Education in New York City. Moderated by Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report, the panel included Marcie Craig Post (executive director of ILA), Steven Duggan (director of worldwide education strategy at Microsoft), Bernadette Dwyer (lecturer in literacy studies at St. Patrick’s College in Ireland), David Kirp (professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley), and Susan Neuman (professor and chair of the teaching and learning department at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development).
The conversation touched on an array of topics, but circled around five “big ideas”:
1. Literacy changes lives. Illiteracy has an equally powerful impact. Consider these statistics: Though global illiteracy rates have dropped in recent decades, 12 percent of the world’s population is functionally illiterate, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. That leaves 781 million adults and 126 million youth around the world unable to read and write. Roughly two-thirds of illiterate adults are women.
In the United States, 14 percent of the adult population—a staggering 32 million adults—can’t read. “What’s more shocking is that we haven’t moved that needle in 10 years,” said Post.
Why is literacy so important? “We know that literacy helps people escape the bonds of poverty and live longer,” said Post. “We know that people who are literate are more inclined to vote, take part in their community, and seek medical help for themselves and their families. They’re also better equipped to take advantage of knowledge jobs, which are growing at explosive rates.”
2. This work requires collective action and collaboration. Several members of the panel emphasized the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships in combating illiteracy. “We cannot be successful if we work in our own individual silo,” said Jill Lewis-Spector, president of ILA, in her opening remarks.
“As much effort as we all give to this, as much money and resources are poured into the effort, ultimately no single organization or entity can fix this problem alone,” added Post, who urged genuine partnerships between government, businesses, NGOs, educators, and families.
On the part of industry, Duggan noted a change in philosophy in how Microsoft has approached these collaborations. “We started to listen,” he said. “If anyone knows technology companies, you know that’s probably not our strength. We tend to walk in the door and tell you what’s wrong and how to fix it.”
Of what he has learned from these partnerships, Duggan said, “Technology companies aren’t thought leaders in education. What we are is really good tool kits that can be put to good use by people who know more than we do.”
3. The digital divide is wide. There’s no doubt that digital literacy is becoming increasingly important. Though print and digital literacy should not be an either/or situation, the panelists said progress has to be made to develop students’ technological skills in meaningful ways. One of the biggest challenges, according to Dwyer, exists in high-poverty schools. “We know they’re either not getting access to technology or they’re using tech to develop low-level skills. Their more affluent peers are using these technologies in challenging, authentic ways,” she said. “It’s what I call the digitally determined Matthew Effect. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Rather than closing the gap, tech is actually compounding the difficulties.”
4. We can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to interventions. Neuman places a high value on understanding individual communities and contexts before attempting to deliver literacy interventions. For example, when Neuman studied “summer slide” in one community in Washington, D.C., she found there were no preschool books available to children. For elementary-age students, there was one book for every 832 children. Neuman looked at where people congregated in the community—the church, health center, and grocery store—and put vending machines with books in those areas. “We’re reaching families where they are. The goal is to say, ‘Let us not go in and expect a certain intervention will work. Let’s learn from our communities, let’s respect our communities, and let’s work within them,’ ” she said.
Similarly, we can’t expect that adding tech devices will be a magical literacy intervention either. “I’ve seen no technology intervention in education that started with the purchase of a device and ended with success,” said Duggan. Instruction and teacher expertise still trump all.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail. The panelists acknowledged that the education community at large—from teachers and schools to NGOs and for-profit businesses—are afraid to take risks and fail. On a small scale, a teacher or school may be concerned that a new approach might not work for students. On a large scale, a nonprofit organization may worry about losing funding if a project flops. “Failure should be the baseline for informing the next revision of what could be a very good, worthwhile project that could have major impact, but we’re afraid of that,” said Post.
“Failure is great. Failure is something we have to accept and embrace. For a lot of the agencies we work with, that’s hard to do,” said Duggan. “We have to use real-time data so we fail quickly. And let’s fail forward so we can put that learning into place.”
Images: Courtesy of Colleen P. Clark/International Literacy Association.