Thursday, 8 September 2016

International Literacy Day 2016

“The world has changed since 1966 but our determination to provide every woman and man with the skills, capacities and opportunities to become everything they wish, in dignity and respect, remains as firm as ever. Literacy is a foundation to build a more sustainable future for all”. –UNESCO Director-General
It is rather alarmingly that data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), indicates that there are 758 million adults, 15 years and older who are unable to read or write a simple sentence. Disturbingly, two-thirds are female. Of the global illiterate population, 114 million are between the ages 15 t0 24, 509 million are 25-64 years and 135 million are 65 years and older. The statistics speaks volume and signify that a lot of work is still required to attain universal literacy.
The International community pauses on September 8, 2016 to commemorate International Literacy Day. The day is used as a platform to raise awareness of the plight of millions of our fellow human beings whose minds are imprisoned due to their inability to read and write and function effectively in their respective societies. Interestingly, this year is the 50th anniversary of UNESCO’S International Literacy Day and the theme is: Reading the Past, Writing the Future. 
The eradication of adult illiteracy requires a collaborative effort involving public-private partnership since no government will have all the resources needed to eradicate illiteracy. The international community through the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) has also established targets in order to accomplish universal literacy.  In fact, Sustainable Development Goal 4 ensures inclusive and equitable quality education and promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all. Additionally, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.1 states that by 2030, all girls and boys should complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes. SDG 4.6 categorically states that by 2030 all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy. Jamaica is likely to meet such targets given the early indicators such as the Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT) scores for our primary level students. However, there is a tendency to believe that student enrollment in school in and of itself is a panacea geared towards literacy; however, this is far removed from the truth. Historically, many countries, including Jamaica have practiced a system of social promotion policy which sees students moving from grades regardless of competence at the grade level. Regrettable, the age of the student is the overarching factor in the promotion. This practice does more harm than good and needs to be revisited. Within the Caribbean region, Cuba, has achieved universal literacy and this is most commendable, given the limitation of resources on the State. Jamaica has an adult literacy rate of 87 per cent. Jamaica has made tremendous strides regarding the fight to reduce illiteracy. In 1972 the National Literacy Board was established, two later the name was changed to the Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL). In 2006 JAMAL was rebranded with the creation of the Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning (JFLL). The JFLL has had to work hard to overcome the stigma and discrimination that members who are illiterate have had to deal with. While there are still remnants of stigma lingering, it is nowhere close to what it used to be. However, as will celebrate our successes regarding the war on illiteracy, we must be mindful of the challenges we face as a relatively small state. Issues, such as poverty, overcrowded classrooms and family tradition all can have a negative effect on literacy. We need to foster and nurture a culture of reading in our society. Our early childhood institutions, as well as our homes need to embrace the concept of emergent literacy. This is a process which begins before school, through activities and experiences in everyday life with peers and adults. Emergent literacy in reality is the idea that children grow into reading and writing with no real beginning or ending point. Perhaps, now is a good a time to define reading. Reading is the process in which we construct meaning from print. Reading is a language activity and our ability to read is limited to our language skills. Reading is the other half of writing. Reading can also be defined as the simultaneous decoding and comprehension. In other words, merely calling words is not reading. In order for someone to be literate, that individual must also have the requisite comprehension skills set necessary to fully understand what was read. Phonemic Awareness is a critical part in any literacy programme and we must revisit this in terms of how we teach reading. (Yapp, 1992), says, phonemic awareness is children’s basic understanding that speech is composed of a series of individual sounds and is the foundation for phonics. We need to engage our students, especially our boys more regarding reading. One such method is by transforming instruction through technology. Technology can promote an environment where students are actively engaged in learning through collaborative participation. Much more can be done to teach literacy by using computer-aided software and other digital devices. Students can become motivated through computer-based educational activities that may increase the opportunity to customize their work and increase the control and challenge of the task provided.  Our students have more access to reading material now than at any other time in history. In addition to print books, there are digital formats such as e-books and audio books which we need to make more use of. Additionally, the Education Ministry needs to strengthen the literacy programmes in our schools by offering scholarships for students to pursue studies in Literacy, as well as, by providing more literacy specialists in our schools to give support to the ongoing literacy programmes. The Education Ministry needs to view as urgent the need to employ gender-specialists in our schools to assist in developing programmes to cater to both sexes. Our boys need to see men read in public spaces, whether this is in the classroom, at home or some other structured setting. Too often reading is viewed as not macho enough and many boys feel pressured not to pick up a book and read. The time has come for us not only to challenge this myth but to interrogate this stereotype in bringing about changes to the narrative as we work towards building a reading culture in which we empower our boys as well as girls.    
In the words of Kofi Annan, literacy unlocks the door to learning throughout life, is essential to development and health, and opens the way for democratic participation and active citizenship.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.