Reflections on Literacy

"Literacy unlocks the door to learning throughout life, is essential to the development and health, and opens the way for democratic participation and active citizenship." - Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General

Recently, I had the great fortune of visiting Southeast Asia, where I attended a summer Reading Day event at a school library in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. As part of my participation in the day's activities, I offered to "read" a story to the students. Challenged with the task of conveying a story written in a language I couldn't read, I chose to act out a story using the book's colorful pictures as my inspiration. This impromptu story received more than a few giggles -- even from my own five-year-old daughter, who was traveling with me and happily joined in the festivities.

Although a sweet memory, that moment in Vietnam also served as a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by the 796 million people in the world today who cannot read or write. I had experienced only a fleeting panic when I realized that I couldn't read the story, yet how would it feel to deal with this challenge on a daily basis? Just for a moment, imagine coursing through one day as an illiterate person, unable to read your morning newspaper, a medication bottle, signs on the road, labels at the grocery store, or a story to your child? Each word seen only as a jumble of incomprehensible symbols. It borders on the unimaginable.

Back in the library, as I watched my daughter interact with her new playmates, I felt honored to witness these children building the literacy skills that will pave the way to their future success. Currently, 67 million children in the world wake up every day and do not go to school. Each of these children deserves the right to learn and develop literacy skills, and to therefore possess the tools needed to actively participate in their communities and reach their full potential.

This month, and in honor of International Literacy Day on September 8 -- a holiday established by the United Nations in 1965 to promote education and literacy worldwide -- perhaps each of us can find a way to play a part in promoting literacy. We might choose to encourage the habit of reading by sharing a wonderful book with family or friends, or perhaps visit your local library and support your community's efforts to ensure that all children have equal access to quality children's literature.

At the end of the Reading Day in Vietnam, my daughter proclaimed that she would happily attend a similar reading event at her own school back home -- reminding me yet again of the universal love of reading shared by children around the world... and their collective right to experience it.