It’s a big number, isn’t it? That’s the number of people in the world who are illiterate—young people and adults. They can’t read or write! It’s a shocking piece of news that often doesn’t make the headlines, and yet literacy is one of the biggest challenges of our time.

Fortunately in 1967 the United Nations has set aside a day, September 8, as International Literacy Day, when educators meet to examine the results of the previous year’s work. On this day literacy programs are evaluated, progress is determined and new goals are established to bring literacy to neglected parts of the world.

Literacy is a fundamental human right and is the basis for any individual to improve his/her life. Literacy is self-help! It brings understanding, skills and work, which lead to better social and economic conditions. People who are illiterate lack the tools to understand the world around them, and are therefore severely hindered in their development. They will never be able to read a book, or to put their thoughts and ideas in writing. Today literacy programs focus not only on reading and writing, but also on basic arithmetic, which is essential to anyone in today’s world.

During the 19th century and the Victorian Age, British writers like Charles Dickens made society aware of the serious illiteracy problems. In Dickens’s great novels, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Hard Times and Great Expectations, he portrayed the poor and the working class of the Industrial Revolution. The children of the working class never went to school because they had to work long hours in terrible conditions in the factories. Their parents could not afford to pay for their education. They remained illiterate all their lives.

This year one of the main topics of International Literacy Day will be the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on literacy programs around the world. During the long lock-down when schools were closed, students in many countries could continue their lessons at home with their computers and tablets. But students in several other countries, who were part of the literacy programs, had to stop learning! They did not have the technological learning tools necessary to continue their education from home. This is a real shame. However, progress is being made because more and more people are aware of this crucial problem and the results are very encouraging. What can we do? Find out where you can donate used books in your neighborhood—ask your school or local public library.

Remember, never throw a book away—just give it a new home.

TO GO FURTHER

Discussion

In Mark Twain’s story, The Prince and the Pauper, the protagonist Tom Canty is very poor. He’s a beggar in London and he can’t go to school. Read these sentences from the story:

Tom thought, ‘I don’t want to be poor forever. I want to learn to read and write. I want to know about the world.’  Father Andrew was Tom’s friend. He was a kind, old priest who lived nearby and he taught Tom to read and write.

Being literate doesn’t only mean reading and writing. It also means learning about the world around us and all the opportunities for personal growth. Discuss in pairs or in groups what Tom said and list all the opportunities that open up to a literate person.