50 Years of International Literacy Day: Time to Develop New Literacy Data

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Today marks the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day. This year’s Day, under the banner of ‘Reading the Past, Writing the Future’, honours five decades of global progress on literacy rates. It also explores innovative ways to expand literacy in the future: a global promise set out in Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on education. Target 4.6 aims to ensure that all youth and most adults achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030.

According to new baseline data for Target 4.6 from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), the world has come a long way over the past 50 years and there is much to celebrate. The latest data, presented in a fact sheet and illustrated in the UNESCO eAtlas of Literacy, show remarkable progress on youth literacy.

Young people in Africa and Asia, for example, are far more likely to be literate than they were 50 years ago, and in 2014, 91% of the global population aged 15 to 24 years had basic literacy skills, compared with 76% of those aged 65 years or older. In Southern Asia, more than twice as many young people have basic literacy skills (84%) than those aged 65 years or older (39%).

The literacy gender gap has narrowed worldwide, with women making more progress since the 1960s than men. Today’s young women have a literacy rate that is 18 percentage points higher than the rate for elderly women, compared with a gap of 11 percentage points between younger and older men.

Despite all of this progress in expanding access to schooling, which underlies the increase in literacy rates, there are still serious challenges that must be tackled head-on. The latest data show that 758 million adults – two-thirds of them women – still lacked basic reading and writing skills in 2014. It is no surprise (although it remains a major concern) that older women have not yet caught up with the men of their generation, given the discrimination so many have endured during their lives. What is really disappointing is that young women aged 15 to 24 years still lag behind their male peers in many regions – a clear sign of the persistent challenges that continue to hold girls back.

What literacy rates can or cannot tell us

Before we get too carried away with these big global figures, however, we need to take a step back and consider what they can or cannot tell us. It must be stressed that literacy rates are usually based on a self-declaration of reading and writing skills, which may overstate actual skill levels and which does not capture any notion of functional literacy. Often, current data are collected through population censuses or household surveys in which the head of the household answers one question: “Can you (and others in your home) home read and write a simple sentence?”

Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) add a simple test of reading skills to their survey modules in developing countries, with a sample of adult respondents, typically aged 15 to 49 years, who are asked to read a card with a short, simple sentence in their language. There are three possible results: 1) cannot read at all; 2) able to read only parts of the sentence; or 3) able to read the whole sentence. While these results are more reliable than self-reported data and give at least some sense of the level of reading skills, the tests still don’t allow for the measurement of literacy on a continuum.

Today’s large-scale, international programmes to assess adult literacy, such as the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and the Skills Towards Employment and Productivity programme (STEP), allow countries to compare the skills of their adult population and see what needs to be improved. But they are less relevant for developing countries as they don’t pinpoint literacy levels among the least-skilled segments of the population and provide little guidance on what skills need to be improved and how. Countries also collect their own data on adult literacy skills in surveys that vary in content coverage and methodology, making it difficult to compare them with the results of other assessments or with results from other countries.

A new generation of indicators

Clearly, literacy is a complex issue and it is imperative that we ensure that the data are fit for purpose. We should, therefore, view the existing dataset as a placeholder for a new generation of indicators to be produced by countries and partners under the umbrella of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML), which was established by the UIS and held its first meeting in May 2016. GAML will develop the methodologies needed to gather more nuanced data and the tools needed for their standardisation, to ensure that they are truly comparable. In particular, GAML is exploring ways to develop a ‘light’ version of PIACC that could be used for a more efficient measurement of adult reading and numeracy skills. This involves close consultation with partners such as the OECD, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) and other technical partners involved with adult literacy assessment.

The UIS is also collaborating with the UIL, the OECD and the World Bank to design and produce the Short Literacy Survey (SLS), a basic assessment survey of adult literacy. This will provide information on individuals’ acquisition of very basic reading skills and will try to link to other international assessment scales, like PIAAC and STEP. Once the three assessments are linked, it will be possible to produce comparable data for monitoring of adult skills. In the meantime, the DHS and MICS surveys provide a useful interim measure, pending the further development of learning metrics to create a much richer set of indicators.

The data in the new UIS fact sheet give us valuable baselines for the measurement of literacy progress and pitfalls, but they also reinforce the urgent need for greater investment in literacy and numeracy programmes around the world if the new SDG literacy goal is to be met by 2030.


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