Literacy stories

International Literacy Day, 8 September 2014

Happy International Literacy Day everyone. Comment on an Australian listerv:

I AM glad to be literate, yet it’s often something I take for granted.  I wonder how many of us fall into the same category? In Australia the statistics are a bit frightening. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 44% of adults (18-90) are operating at level 2 literacy level or below. Level 3 is considered the level students need to reach to graduate from high school. Without literacy you cannot function effectively in society. You need to be literate before you can use digital technologies effectively and efficiently. Computers are complementary NOT compensatory.

Dr Barbara Combes, Secretary, Literacy and Reading Section, IFLA

Lecturer, School of Information Studies, Charles Sturt University

 

I was travelling on a bus to work one morning, when a woman anxiously requested the driver to turn the bus around. He was agitated with her and asked her why she wanted him to do so. She said: “you are going in the wrong direction, uou are supposed to go the other way. The bus driver became very frustrated with her when she started to panic and continued to ask him to turn the bus around. I witnessed this for a while and then realised that the woman could not read, because the bus route was written on the front panel of the bus. I got up and spoke to the bus driver and then he realized it too and gave her the benefit of the doubt. He stopped the bus and let her get off the bus, fully reimbursed with her travel fare. She was anxious yet relieved and exited the bus thanking us profusely.  This is the result of illiteracy in our nations. If a human being cannot read simple signs like bus route names and places familiar to them, it is extremely sad and frustrating to them, and to us who are aware of it as well.  I have had similar incidents in our shopping malls as well. In these incidents, women could not count for correct money to pay their items bought, or even read what is written on the store shelves. In all those incidents I thanked God that I could be of assistance to them. Their embarrassment and helplessness were very evident in all cases.  In all the incidents I experienced, I was so grateful that I could read and write, and this too inspired me to do literacy advocacy with children as my social responsibility.  Happy International Literacy Day everyone. Literacy definitely Matters.

Julia Paris, South Africa

 

 

How Public Libraries Can Support Community Literacy

 

I recently had the fortune to participate in a UNESCO meeting on mobile literacy solutions for out-of-school children in Thailand. With a large population of migrants in some of the most difficult-to-reach parts of the country, many children risk missing out on school. Thailand’s official commitment to ensuring access to education for all is impressive — an explicit mandate to include all children, regardless of status — but there are many hurdles. As the starting point for access to information, opportunity and advancement, literacy is understandably a key priority for governments and organizations across the development spectrum. Millennium Development Goal #2 targets universal primary education, and includes literacy rates as a key indicator. USAID has prioritized early grade reading and aims to improve the reading skills of a 100 million children by 2015.  So, with more than 230,000 public libraries in developing countries around the world — institutions historically devoted to access to reading materials — it’s confounding that libraries are usually left out of systematic literacy efforts. It’s a huge missed opportunity. And as new technologies start to become a realistic supplement to education efforts, there’s even more of a need for a coordinated community learning hub, a role libraries are suited to play.  At the meeting in Bangkok, participants from government and NGOs shared familiar challenges they are currently coping with — not enough teachers, not enough equipment, not enough time in class. While no panacea, public libraries are ideal institutions to help mitigate these issues in many places, including Thailand, where there are more than 800 around the country. I shared some of the lessons Beyond Access has learned in ways that existing public libraries can support literacy efforts.

 

A library can be an ‘ecology of learning’ — a safe space open to all that isn’t just a warehouse for books.

A public library in Tbilisi, Georgia shows how comfortable spaces for enjoying reading together can be created cheaply and simply.  Children don’t gain fluent literacy skills from school alone. Research from the OECD PISA exam shows that “the performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background.”  Any literacy effort must foster a convenient place where families can spend time reading and learning together. And libraries can serve this role.  A room full of academic reading desks and locked bookcases is no longer a relevant model. A modern library has soft carpets and beanbag chairs, and short shelves with book covers facing outward, facilitating browsing and discovery.

 

Tech that supports literacy should encourage sharing and collaborative family interaction

To foster literacy, technology should encourage interactivity and create a substantially new experience. That doesn’t happen by simply providing PDF copies of books to be viewed on a computer screen. But new technology — such as shared tablets — can be used to bring families together, for example around collaborative educational games. Public libraries are the best place to host these tools and serve as community learning laboratories when new technologies arrive.

 

Literacy initiatives demand a coordination point for collective impact

Frequently overburdened with too many students, subjects and levels, teachers can’t be expected to lead the literacy charge on the local level by themselves. But librarians are often perfectly placed to supplement their work. Libraries can create welcoming literacy hubs and conduct outreach to schools — bringing books for lending and sharing, leading group reading activities like story times, and supporting teachers in working effective literacy activities into their lessons.

 

Training infomediaries is key to achieving results

In our work on Beyond Access, we notice similar tendencies around the world, in literacy projects as in others. Big investments are made in things — technology, publishing, connectivity — while the skills in how to use these things to improve lives are shortchanged. When equal consideration is not given to proper training, things quickly become obsolete and disused. Our experience has led to a roughly 1:1 ratio as a guideline. For each dollar put into things, we recommend spending one dollar on training. Often, that means fewer things. But of course, it means much more impact from the investment.  Beyond Access is just starting out on efforts to address the gap between libraries and literacy initiatives. We are developing programs that include a focus on community literacy in Myanmar and Bangladesh, and we’re exploring how we can assist with efforts in other regions. We’re also involved in the latest round of the All Children Reading Grand Challenge, supporting projects that integrate libraries. As we learn more about how public libraries can most effectively fit into the literacy picture, we’ll share our reflections here.  As always, if you’re interested in partnering with us on this initiative, please get in touch at beyondaccess@irex.org.

Ari Katz, Regional Director, Beyond Access, Country Director, IREX/Thailand, Bangkok

 

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