Understanding the written word opens up windows to the world. It allows a person to communicate with others not in immediate proximity, to engage with thoughts from fellow humans far and away, and with people who lived in the past. It allows access to symbolic representations of the world, to explanations, interpretations of events, enabling in this way understanding. Reading allows also engaging with multiple, even conflicting, interpretations of the facts, and therefore with complexity and nuance. Access to the written code is, in a nutshell, the foundation of logical thinking and understanding, a powerful tool to interpret and transform the world.
On September 8th we celebrate International Literacy Day, as a result of an 1965 initiative of the United Nations Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) organization, designed to highlight how crucial literacy was to people and their communities, and to focus attention on expanding the opportunities for all people to learn to read. UNESCO played a very important global role in expanding literacy, and it did so as a result of internal struggles, early in the life of the organization, to define its mission. A key figure in the focus on literacy was Jaime Torres Bodet, UNESCO's director general from 1948 to 1952 and former Secretary of Education of Mexico, who saw the mission of the organization as advancing fundamental literacy, providing the vast majority of the world's children the opportunity to be schooled and to gain access to the written word.
What it means to be able to read, and to write, is largely situated in particular contexts and time. Literacy is, in this way, a moving bar. For a long time censuses around the world defined literacy as the ability to read one's name, or a short paragraph. More recently, in the year 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, began a periodic assessment of knowledge and skills of 15 year olds around the world (the PISA studies) which defined literacy as the ability to access written texts and interpret them in ways that allowed the functioning in a knowledge based economy and in a democracy society. Clearly a higher bar than being able to read a short paragraph. Controversies about how best to support literacy have stemmed, in part, from alternative definitions of what it means to be literate, with some emphasizing the ability to decode symbols and others emphasizing the ability to understand what is read, or even to love reading, or to be able to read in different genres or disciplines.
Two events transformed humanity in providing significant numbers of people with the skills to read. The first was the invention of the printing press in 1440. The second, the global education movement that began with the inclusion of the right to education as one of the universal human rights included in the declaration adopted by the United Nations in 1947. International Literacy Day is an annual reminder at the invitation of UNESCO, the very organization created to advance the universal human right to education, that the task of providing access to literacy to all is unfinished, and that we must forge ahead to complete it. The PISA studies, show that significant percentage of the world's youth don't understand what they read at levels that allow them to think critically, as necessary in the 21st century.
Literacy is an important priority of education for most governments around the world, and indeed for most educators. The improvement of the practices to teach reading have greatly benefited from decades of research on language development and literacy acquisition. The development of systems to support high quality instruction owes much to the efforts of educators and ordinary citizens who have created systems to help teachers improve their practice and increase their effectiveness. Organizations such as Room to Read, a global non profit founded in 1999 by John Wood and currently operating in ten countries in Asia and Africa which has impacted millions of children by providing school libraries and professional development to teachers. Undergirding many of these global efforts is the quiet work of education leaders who create, fund and support programs to advance literacy, they are the stewards of the Global Education Movement to educate all which began in 1947. I am grateful to work with graduate students in the International Education Policy Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who have gone on to pursue exactly such path.
On International Literacy Day, let us thank all of those who are part of that Global Movement to educate all children, present and past, from teachers in schools, to those who help them improve their craft, all the way to organizations such as UNESCO who remind us that the task is unfinished, and that we must forge ahead. Perhaps even better, let us commit to being part of the movement to educate all children and find a way to help all learn how to read.