It is estimated that 781 million people are illiterate – around 12% of the global population. International Literacy Awareness Day was created in recognition of the huge number of people still struggling with illiteracy and occurs annually on September 8th. It is promoted by the International Literacy Association as a day to recognise the importance of literacy skills. The ability to read and write can easily be taken for granted if you have been fortunate enough to grow up with sufficient access to the education and resources necessary to give you such skills. Being illiterate puts you at a huge disadvantage and may prevent you from interacting with the global community; so much knowledge simply cannot be accessed if you are unable to read, whether this information is found in books or via the internet.
Difficulty accessing the education that teaches people how to read is intrinsically linked to poverty and as a result it may be tempting to consider illiteracy as a problem that only affects those in developing countries. In the UK, however, one in six adults struggle with literacy despite living in one of the most developed countries in the world. A Government report revealed in 2014 that Britain has an extremely disparate rate of reading abilities amongst its children, second only to Romania within the EU. Troubles with literacy skills can vary from the complete inability to decipher written words to being ‘functionally illiterate’ as the National Literacy Trust puts it. In adults this means that reading abilities are below that expected of an 11 year old. 5.2 million adults in the UK are classed as such, creating obvious barriers to employment.
The National Literacy Trust tackles illiteracy and hosts annual campaigns around International Literacy Awareness Day. This year sees comedian and children’s author David Walliams launching the National Literacy Trusts’ literacy campaign alongside Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. The campaign hopes to see 200 book clubs set up across the country and ensure that all eight year old children are enrolled in their local library. Government funding will also be given to continue the work of the Reading Agency’s Chatterbooks scheme which provides over 10,000 children with resources for local book groups.
Throughout the rest of the year The Reading Agency works in partnership with the National Literacy Trust to encourage children and adults to read more and to take pleasure from doing so. Technology is a necessary feature in every home, but the prevalence of electronic entertainment means that reading often falls by the wayside for many children. Many adults also struggle with their literacy skills, especially those in lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The Reading Agency recognises this and sees literacy as something that everyone should have equal access to books, and so they also work with prisoners through the Books Unlocked project in partnership with the world renowned Booker Prize Foundation. The project provides inmates with copies of critically acclaimed contemporary fiction pieces to read and discuss, giving them confidence in their reading abilities and thus empowering them to seek better jobs upon release.
On a more global scale, the International Literacy Association has also partnered with the Little Free Libraries project to help make books more accessible within communities and to encourage reading by making it social, recognising the encouragement that group participation can provide. A report by the Reading Agency has even found that reading for pleasure can reduce symptoms of depression, improve well-being and make people more empathetic – an important confirmation of the positive impact reading has.
Whilst there are numerous projects and events being organised in celebration of International Literacy Awareness Day, the importance of the day is clear: literacy is a right for all and we must do everything that we can to make literacy a reality for everyone.