Issue 108 / November - December 2015
Literacy, Violence, and Reading Habits in the World
Sumayya B. Sharaf
According to UNESCO, literacy is, "the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society."
In this cyber-age of learning, the distance to education is as short as one click. Despite this, illiteracy is prevalent, even in big cities like Los Angeles. To fight this, the LA Public Library organizes volunteer literacy teaching sections for adults. This isn't just a huge problem for these adults, but it can be passed on to their children, too. According to the National Center for the Family Literacy Fact Sheet, one third of illiterate adults are primary caregivers of children aged 0-8. While poverty is usually the reason behind illiteracy, both in developed and underdeveloped countries, literacy is also a gateway out of poverty. But if a parent is illiterate, it's both harder for them to get out of poverty, and to help their child out of poverty.
Save the Children is another literacy program in the US, though this is aimed at kids. According to Save the Children, many children - even in the US - do not have access to formal education; or even if they do, their school libraries are not developed enough. Save the Children has worked with 180 schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia.2 These kinds of civic initiatives to reach out to each and every corner of the country give rise to consistent and stubborn thinkers - thinkers who have made universities such as Harvard and Yale brand names in the US.
Still, one has to ask: how is it possible to have so many children and adults with no access to education due to poverty, even in a country like the United States? Though the problem still exists in the developed world, illiteracy is obviously more prevalent in the developing world. Some of the numbers are almost staggering; according to UNESCO's literacy e-Atlas, 781 million adults and 126 million children cannot read or write. These numbers are spread around the globe, as almost 52 million people in Pakistan, 13 million in Brazil, 12.4 million in Indonesia, and even 3.3 million people in Turkey are illiterate. The problem is often worse for women, as their access to literacy is just half that of men throughout Africa.
Poverty, illiteracy, and crime can generate a vicious cycle. According to the data provided on the website dosomething.org, most of the juveniles who face trial for crimes are illiterate, and more than half of inmates are also illiterate. Students who do not reach reading proficiency by the end of 4th grade are likely to be involved in some kind of crime. Perhaps not surprisingly, over 70% of inmates in the US cannot read at a level above an average 4th grader. 3
The National Assessment of Adult Literacy report of 2003 adds more dramatic statistical information. Accordingly, 45% of the adult population in the US has limited reading, writing, and math skills. Literacy programs are not enough; for instance, in Texas almost 4 million people need adult literacy programs, yet only a hundred thousand people receive literacy education.4
This is a worldwide problem and it has far reaching effects. A person's basic human rights cannot be fulfilled unless that person has access to education about their rights. Literacy education is the first and foremost right of each and every person. It is our duty as humans to share what we are lucky to have; education is one of the gifts in many of our lives. It is our duty to dissolve all the hurdles on the road that takes people to education. As Victor Hugo said, "He who opens a school door, closes a prison."
While individual literacy decreases rates of crime, family literacy has the potential to create units of critical thinkers, thus lowering rates of social conflict. Families play an important role in developing reading and writing abilities, the diversity of words one can use, and the clarity of expression in one's own sentiments and ideas. Kindergarten, 4th grade, and the beginning of high school are the three golden time periods when a child needs the most support in gaining habits of reading, writing, and using the appropriate words. Thus, families as well as schools might develop further projects to develop literacy in children, young adults - and especially in girls, since two-thirds of those who are illiterate are women.
Many centers and institutes serve this purpose. For instance, Centre for Family Literacy, the web site of a literacy program in Alberta, Canada, has online documents on how parents can educate themselves and the children around them.5 But we need more help combatting this extensive human problem.
Reading and writing are deeply important to a diverse society and an interconnected world. A society's reading habits reveal how people are investing in their communities and challenging themselves. No form of media challenges the human mind quite like reading does. The Institute of Education of the University of London reports that reading for pleasure not only influences a child's school grades, but it is also crucial for cognitive development.6
Unfortunately, in a world that is increasingly inundated with media options, people are reading less. According to the NOP World Culture Score, in an average week, individuals around the world watch TV for 16.6 hours, listen to the radio for 8 hours, spend 8.9 hours on a computer and the Internet, and only read for 6.5 hours. What do less developed cognitive skills mean in our world? I'm not sure, but the answer could be more violence and conflict. The best way to combat these conflicts is exceedingly simple: read.
1. Fethullah Gulen, The Fountain, Issue 104.
4. literacytexas.org with reference to: TWIC 2010, A Primer on Adult Education in Texas