The Blog

Cracking the Literacy Code Together

As the UN General Assembly meets in New York City, a key topic for global leaders should be the issue of literacy. The gap is critical, particularly for young people, and needs to be addressed.

As the UN General Assembly meets in New York City, a key topic for global leaders should be the issue of literacy. The gap is critical, particularly for young people, and needs to be addressed. The following was originally posted on the Pearson Blog.

It's difficult for me to imagine the frustration of not being able to read a newspaper headline or a note written by my daughter. For 800 million people illiteracy is a sad and limiting reality. Illiteracy impacts both adults and children, and doesn't discriminate based on geography. One in ten people is illiterate, and yet the ability to communicate in writing is the entry point to education and the most basic building block that's required for almost every skill needed to thrive in today's world.

What's more, most of us are now, to some extent, required to interact with technology in order to complete even the simplest of tasks, such as applying for a job. Digital interaction is no longer optional. Literacy has become something more involved than recognising and forming words on paper. The literacy of today requires a fluency with not only words, but with the very technology that carries and amplifies them.

Now we are launching an important initiative called Project Literacy, a social movement aiming to shed light on this international crisis; creating conversations and sharing projects and ideas that will make headway on giving every person access to the tools they need to become literate. Project Literacy is a five-year effort that will help us to identify opportunities for tackling the global literacy crisis, and one that will help us to be smart about investing in and scaling those projects. We, as a learning company with technology at its core, are in a unique place to help unlock the power of literacy for so many people. But before I ask you to get involved, I think it's worth talking for a moment about how we think about literacy, and its link with technology.

Do we see technology as a barrier to literacy and skill-building, or as an enabling tool that can be used to educate, to build, to improve, and so vitally -- to create? When someone uses code to create a computer program, is that so different from using the alphabet to arrange words on paper to form a document? I'd argue that, while coding/computing is a relatively new form of literacy, it's not so different. I emphasise digital literacy not to downplay the role of paper-based reading and writing as foundational skills, or to say that all education must happen by way of a digital tool. Reading, alone, is a powerful skill that opens countless doors. So powerful, in fact, that if children in low-income countries left school with basic literacy skills, global poverty would be reduced by 12 percent. Clearly learning can happen anywhere, and does happen everywhere. But technology and literacy, for so many educators, students, parents, and workers, are now deeply interwoven, and we do ourselves and our students a disservice when we talk about one without the other. "Are you proficient in HTML?" is as likely, or perhaps even more likely to be asked of a prospective marketing hire as "Do you communicate effectively in writing?" Computer fluency is now considered by many to be a basic skill.

I'm not a technology guru by any means...I sometimes make simple tech mistakes and I've only just got the hang of Twitter. But I do believe that educators and those invested in education must not create barriers to their own literacy and to the literacy of our youth. Instead we must take the time to explore, and give young people access to and knowledge about, the tools that are demanded by the workplaces, relationships, and societies of our digital age. As is true with language, very young children who pick up a tablet are far more likely to experiment and engage with it fearlessly than adults. (In fact, 89 percent of school children polled in the U.S. said that tablets make learning more engaging.)

If we change the way we think about technology and literacy in this new digital reality, if we embrace movements that make learning fun (like the Hour of Code) or those that amplify traditional literacy through social-media backed projects (like Read for the Record), I am certain that we can improve the situation for millions, if not billions of people. Project Literacy is a starting point for us, and for bringing to light the movements that will aid in the fight against illiteracy. Please join us on add your own project or idea to the conversation, be inspired by a project or by our literacy infographics, or just learn something new.