Imagine you are four years old and your mom gives you a dollar to get her favorite soda from the pizzeria you’re at. You haven’t learned how to read yet, so the letters on the soda cans in the fridge look foreign to you. Yet, you’re still able to choose the correct cola instead of another soda brand without having to read the label, and to pay the pizza clerk without needing to read the price sign. Why is this?
This example is comparable to what it would be like to be functionally illiterate. Although you cannot read, you can rely on context clues to function and complete a simple task. From life experience, you have learned that certain soda brands have different colored cans and designs. However, context clues can only help so much before literacy skills become necessary. Around the world, literacy rates are used to determine how educated a population is in a given country. These skills determine future career success as well as how an individual interacts with and understands the world around them. Some would even go so far as to say that literacy is “the root of all knowledge.”
Literacy is the ability to read and write. More specifically, it is the process by which an individual uses reading, writing, or oral language to construct meaning. It is integrated into our daily actions and affects the construction of society. It is also used to identify whether someone can understand an area that has its own nuances and jargon. For example, someone who has digital literacy can use technology on a variety of different digital devices and services to communicate, troubleshoot, create, access, and analyze information. Literacy practices differ depending on time and place, and have the power to liberate people as well as oppress them.
How It Works
Literacy and access to education has increased around the world. Global estimates of literacy and school attendance are above 80 percent, compared with two centuries ago when only 12 percent of the global population was considered literate. While literacy rates are much higher than they once were, large inequalities still exist in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, in Burkina Faso, Niger, and South Sudan, literacy rates are below 30 percent.
The causes of illiteracy rates are far-ranging. Common ones include undiagnosed learning challenges, hearing and vision loss, generational illiteracy, poverty, political upheaval and violence, and living in a refugee camp where education resources are minimal or non-existent. In the very remote areas of certain countries, poor teacher attendance due to lack of pay from the government leaves students without an education. Children may also need to supplement their family’s income, leaving school to help with harvesting or finding a job.
It is also important to note that in certain parts of the world, people do not have access to education resources because they simply do not exist, which is why they may never achieve literacy despite having a strong desire to do so. Some families may also prioritize educating their son’s education over their daughters, especially if they have to pay school fees. In other countries, some families would rather their daughters be educated because they need their sons to work during harvest or to earn an income immediately. This can influence literacy access as well.
Illiteracy impacts an individual’s ability to gather crucial information they need for their daily lives. It also affects their employability; those who are illiterate are 2-4 times more likely to experience unemployment. It can impact one’s health, quality of life, social and job mobility, and self-esteem. Illiteracy can also be transgenerational, meaning children are at an increased likelihood of inheriting their parents’ literacy levels. Unfortunately, even if parents do value literacy, they may not have control over the quality of their child’s education or the political and socioeconomic factors that can impact accessibility.
Across the globe, who defines what literacy is and who can access it are often those who are in power. These individuals set the status quo, requiring everyone else to meet the same standards. Therefore, racism and xenophobia affect literacy. For example, in the U.S., students are expected to speak and write in “proper English.” Those who do not are punished, and those who meet these expectations are rewarded. While this policy seems harmless initially, it is racist because “proper English” was determined by those who were (and still are) in power when the foundational roots of education were established. Those individuals are white, able-bodied male Americans. When the statement to speak “proper English” is used, it is meant to stop the usage of Black English Vernacular, Southern slang, or a combination of English and a mother tongue language that English Language Learners sometimes speak. This values one culture over another and is classist and xenophobic. Individuals who grow up learning a version of English that is outside of “proper English” have their literacy judged and questioned. For example, if someone uses Black English Vernacular in a college application essay, they may be perceived as “less educated” than someone who writes in “proper English,” thus, impacting opportunity access.
Since the U.S. education system measures one’s educational status and intelligence through one’s ability to assimilate to a version of literacy determined by those in power, in order for students outside of the demographic holding power to succeed, they must assimilate. Assimilating means leaving behind pieces of their culture and heritage rooted in their language, and adapting the status quo. If these individuals do not adapt, they will face challenges, and their future earning potential will be negatively impacted. Teachers may lack the resources, nuanced perspective, or professional training necessary to address this issue in a way that honors students’ identities and backgrounds. Teachers may also struggle to prepare them to gain access to the normative version of literacy necessary for success.
It is also important to consider that literacy affects not only those who cannot access it, but everyone else. The more individuals whose literacy levels are low, the slower the long-term growth of GDP is in the given country. Not being able to understand or convey knowledge and information prevents individuals from being civically engaged and contributing to their communities. We are all interconnected; one person’s inability to access the opportunities literacy provides is a downfall to us all.