Today (8 September) is International Literacy Day, which UNESCO sees as “a lever of change and an instrument for achieving further social progress.”I was taught to read by my parents and grandparents, long before going to school and love the way that fictional and factual literature in all forms opens up the past, present and future world to me.
When I travel to countries such as Bulgaria, where a different alphabet is used, I get a small sense of what it must be like to be unable to read or write. I am lost in the Cyrillic alphabet – and unable to understand or communicate.
The National Literacy Trust reports 1.1 million adults at or below Entry Level 1, which means someone can:
Understand short texts with repeated language patterns on familiar topics
Obtain information from commons signs and symbols
There is also evidence that University students are “grammatically challenged”, whilst journalists regularly criticise the linguistic abilities of PR practitioners.
I was surprised to read how few people had read most of the books on the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize. Other than Ian McEwan‘s novella, On Chesil Beach – which has sold over 100,000 copies in hardback, the others have together sold only a few thousand copies so far in the UK.
Even many of the “celebrity biographies” are failing to sell in any number. Although the UK book market was worth £3,309 million in 2006 – 73% of which was in the consumer sector. The data (from the Publishers Association) shows spending in schools on books was 8% of the market, with academic/professional accounting for 19%.
Of course, literacy isn’t just about buying, or reading, books. It is about being able to read newspapers, magazines, packaging, road signs, direct mail pieces, bank statements, and personal communications. If you cannot, or do not, read – the online world will largely remain closed to you.
Then there are the pleasures of life, such as reading a bedtime story to a small child, to start them on the road to literacy. Exploring secondhand bookshops and libraries, where works can be borrowed, meaning reading doesn’t have to be an expensive pastime. In my village, we have few public services – but the mobile library visits every other week.
Literacy encompasses an ability to write – to express your views or simply provide information.
In countries such as the UK, we are fortunate that children are able to go to school where they should, at the very least, be able to learn to read and write. It is a disgrace that so many do not get these basic skills for life.
But as UNESCO revealed, it is those who are much less fortunate who have the most to gain from improved literacy.
I never pass a day without reading – professionally and personally. There are books, magazines, and work-related reading (yes, even the dreaded marking), everywhere in my house. I never travel anywhere without a book in my bag – and there are novels beside the bed and in the bathroom.
Reading gives me pleasure, challenges my views, connects me with other people, times and places. I would not be without the ability to read, or write.
As the new academic year starts, one of the things that I most enjoy is making recommendations for students to read texts they have not encountered previously. Even better is when they start to recommend work back to me.
That’s social networking at its best.