Action on literacy is central to reversing the learning crisis

Access to school doesn’t necessarily guarantee learning, let alone the mastery of core skills, like literacy

School child in Pakistan. Credit: Save the Children

Today marks the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day. Back in 1966 when UNESCO declared September 8 International Literacy Day, the UN recognized that urgent action was needed to address the significant challenge that some people couldn’t read and write.

The world has changed immeasurably since 1966 but hundreds of millions of people, men, women and children still lack basic literacy skills.

In fact progress in supporting adults to become literate has stalled and today 758 million adults still cannot read or write a simple sentence, two thirds of them women.

Thankfully it’s not all bad news. Even in the face of a significant increase in the world’s population, the number of young adults without literacy skills decreased by 25 percent between 1990 and 2015.

This is doubtless due to the significant expansion in children’s access to primary education, which was spurred by the Millennium Development Goal on universal primary education.

However we now know that access to school doesn’t necessarily guarantee learning, let alone the mastery of core skills, like literacy.

In fact, around the world there are 130 million children, who despite attending school for four years cannot read. Add to that the 61 million children who have had access to school but have dropped out and the 59 million children who still don’t have access to education and that’s 250 million children who can’t read or write.

250 million children who can’t read or write. Credit: Save the Children

Reversing the global learning crisis

Our failure to provide children with an education that will allow them to gain basics literacy skills amounts to nothing less than a global crisis in learning.

In the face of this challenge Save the Children made an ambitious commitment to help ensure every child leaves primary school able to read.

We chose reading because it’s a vital skill that provides the foundation for further learning. Literacy is also essential to tackling a broad range of critical development issues.

After much preparation we launched our global literacy breakthrough. As a result, between 2012 and 2015 we tracked 35 literacy programs in 22 countries, supporting our staff and partners to implement them, monitor the outcomes and reflect deeply on what worked and what didn’t.

From the mountains of Bhutan to the plains of Zambia, we found a thirst for learning and an unstoppable desire to give children the ability to read.

Across all these countries and the widely divergent contexts that they represent, we identified a number of critical factors that are vital for ensuring that children learn to read.

8 principles to ensure every child can read

We cross-referenced our experience with the available evidence and established 8 principles which we believe provide the foundation for effective literacy action.

  1. Start early: Invest in the scale-up of cost-effective and quality models for improving children’s emergent literacy skills in the early years.
  2. More & better books: Address the scarcity of quality, age and language appropriate children’s books.
  3. Engaging parents & communities: Implement effective community and parent-based literacy activities.
  4. Ensure teachers can teach reading: Teacher training should include instruction on the five core reading skills (letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) to improve teachers’ teaching of reading.
  5. Language matters: Additional support and resources are needed by children who are learning in a language which is not the language they speak at home.
  6. Practice, practice, practice: Remove barriers to reading practice, ensure that time is scheduled in the school day and support reading outside of school.
  7. Assess & track: Invest in improved assessment to inform teaching practice and national policy.
  8. Policy: Ensure literacy is prioritized for government investment and that policies underpin action on each of the principles.
8 principles to ensure every child can read. Credit: Save the Children

Today, we’re launching Lessons in Literacy: 8 principles to ensure every last child can read. The report sets out what the principles look like in practice.

National literacy action plans

We’re now urging governments and our other partners to consider how the 8 principles can be used to help them design and implement more effective programs to ensure every last child can read.

Very specifically we’re calling on governments to develop and implement national literacy action plans.

Without a dedicated focus on improving children’s reading, education systems won’t secure the learning gains required to close the literacy gap.

National literacy action plans are the vehicle for developing and delivering that focus. They should be supported by dedicated, equitable and fair financing and include targeted policies to remove any discrimination toward excluded groups.

Plans should include pre-primary and early grade reading and learning targets to ensure that all children learn to read with comprehension by the time they leave primary school. Plans also need to set out how the children furthest behind will make progress to meet the targets in order to reduce equity gaps.

Work like this is already happening in many countries, including with the support of the Global Partnership for Education, which has learning outcomes and equity as pillars of its funding model.

We would urge other donor agencies to commit in the same way and help countries focus on what matters most to secure learning and to develop national plans to ensure every last child can read.



Head of Education Policy & Advocacy, Save the Children
Joseph Nhan-O'Reilly is Head of Education Policy & Advocacy at Save the Children, the world's largest independent child rights organization, where he works alongside a global team of managers and educators...

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