On Saturday, the world celebrated International Literacy Day. And indeed there was much to celebrate, with literacy rates continuing to rise from one generation to the next, remarkable progress on literacy among youth, in particular, and a steady narrowing of gender gaps. Half a century ago, almost one quarter of youth worldwide lacked the most basic literacy skills, falling to less than 10% in 2016.
But we also need to take a step back and look at just how far we still have to go. Data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) show that 750 million adults – two-thirds of them women – still lack basic reading and writing skills. What’s more, 102 million of those who cannot read or write worldwide are aged 15 to 24. This tells us that something is not working when it comes to equipping youth with these basic skills.
Most countries missed the Education for All (EFA) goal of reducing adult illiteracy rates by 50% between 2000 and 2015 and the global adult and youth literacy rates rose by just 4% each over this period.
Alarming though these statistics are, they actually tell us very little about how children, youth and adults learn to read and write, the obstacles they encounter as they try to gain these skills, and the skills they have actually acquired. In most countries, the data are based on a single question in a household survey or census that asks: “can you read or write a simple sentence?”
The journey towards literacy
A yes/no answer may not be enough to reveal the full story of each individual’s journey towards literacy. After all, how do they decide what constitutes ‘a simple sentence’? And does being able to read or write a simple sentence really signal a full understanding of its meaning?
This is where the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) comes in. It is GAML’s mandate to produce the internationally-comparable learning data that will help us monitor progress and develop the policies needed to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), which includes the following target on literacy: By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy. GAML also provides countries with the tools and information they need to improve the quality of education and learning outcomes of all.
Through GAML, the UIS and UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education (IBE) have developed a Global Content Framework for Reading based on wide-ranging consultations with experts and countries. The Framework aims to help national bodies, educational institutions or organizations and international agencies map and align curricula and national or international assessment frameworks, paving the way for the production of internationally-comparable and meaningful indicators on learning.
How countries can use and benefit from the framework
Two new papers published today show how the Framework can be applied by countries. The first paper, Monitoring Progress towards SDG 4.1 – Initial Analysis of National Assessment Frameworks for Reading, looks at the national assessment frameworks (NAFs) for reading across 25 countries and maps them to the Global Framework, aiming to reinforce the Framework itself while respecting the individual characteristics of national curricula and assessment frameworks. The paper recognizes the critical importance of ensuring comparability of data and indicators for a full understanding and effective interpretation of the processes and outcomes of national assessment systems and policies.
It also finds that there are already several NAFs (including those for France, Ireland and New Zealand) that use a competency-based approach when setting out the abilities they want their students to acquire. Rather than a content-based approach, which examines the specific skills a student should have at each education level, a competency-based approach focuses on how well students interact with the world through their use of reading or writing. It highlights the ways in which they gain an appreciation of the written word, the ways in which they choose the books that interest them, and even the ways they use those books to enhance their understanding of the world around them. None of which could ever be captured by a yes/no question about reading or writing a simple sentence!
To what extent are countries testing the skills they want children to have?
In the second paper, Monitoring Progress towards SDG 4.1: Comparative Analysis of Curriculum and Assessment National Frameworks for Reading, we apply this mapping to the reading curricula of 20 countries. The paper explores the extent to which countries test the skills they want children to have, according to their own curricula.
While comparisons across such a small number of countries should be treated with caution (with three of the seven regions covered represented by only one country), some key themes emerge. The findings reveal, for example, a clear lack of global understanding of metalinguistic competency (put simply, the skills to think about and discuss language). This is rarely seen as being of value in the acquisition of reading skills and is, therefore, largely missing from national curricular or assessment frameworks.
The findings also highlight the need for a stronger alignment between National Assessment Frameworks (NAFs) and National Curriculum Frameworks (NCFs) regardless of the country’s region, income, education level and language. While using national frameworks as a data source for understanding the relationship between assessment and curricular learning outcomes is a starting point, supportive data sources should be added to capture the complexities and nuances of the relationships between assessment and curricula. These could include school district curriculum frameworks, educators’ curricular annual grade plans, school districts’ standardized assessment tools, educator-created assessment tools and qualitative interviews with stakeholders in country.
One key example is found in New Zealand’s NCF: a high-level national document that emphasises the educational philosophy of the country as a whole and mentions overall learning goals for the country. However, it requires the development of comprehensive assessment and curriculum frameworks by regions and local districts. In general, additional data sources would help to create a more representative source of information of the alignment between assessment and curricula, helping to outline more specific learning outcomes and objectives.
Helping countries produce the data to reflect their priorities
The paper also finds content and competency-based approaches – and even a blend of both approaches – within the NAFs and NCFs across the 20 countries. Grounded upon sound methodology, it is recommended that these countries identify the approach that best reflects their national frameworks, based on a clear set of criteria and definitions of what constitutes a competency. Profound insights may emerge from deeper exploration into the alignment of approaches of NAFs and NCFs.
These are tools that go beyond helping countries to report the data needed to monitor progress towards SDG 4. They are also designed to help countries make the most of their investments in education – including their investments in assessments and in curriculum development.
We call on international and national educational bodies to explore the findings of these two papers in relation to the design, development and implementation of national and global curricula and assessment policies and practices in an ever-changing world.