literacy day: the challenge of narrowing the digital divide

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free”. – Frederick Douglass, American writer and abolitionist.


International Literacy Day is celebrated on September 8 to remind the importance of learning how to read and write as a matter of dignity and human rights, and to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society.


Despite progress made, literacy challenges persist with at least 773 million young people and adults lacking basic literacy skills today.


The pandemic and the learning crisis


The theme for the commemoration of this International Day in 2021 is: “Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide”.


The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted the learning of children, young people and adults at an unprecedented scale. It has also magnified the pre-existing inequalities in access to meaningful literacy learning opportunities, disproportionally affecting the millions of illiterate people.


Even in the times of global crisis, efforts have been made to find alternative ways to ensure the continuity of learning, including distance learning, often in combination with in-person learning. Access to literacy learning opportunities, however, has not been evenly distributed.


The rapid shift to distance learning also highlighted the persistent digital divide in terms of connectivity, infrastructure, and the ability to engage with technology, as well as disparities in other services such as access to electricity, which has limited learning options.


The pandemic, however, was a reminder of the critical importance of literacy. Beyond its intrinsic importance as part of the right to education, literacy empowers individuals and improves their lives by expanding their capabilities to choose a kind of life they can value. It is also a driver for sustainable development.


Solutions in the context of the pandemic


As the pandemic forced numerous literacy programs to halt normal modes of operation, educators have struggled and found ways to ensure continuity of learning. Where face-to-face teaching was restricted, distance learning was adopted with the support of various types of solutions:


  • High technology: computers, mobile phones and tablets.
  • Low technology: TV and radio.
  • Non-technological: print-based teaching material.
  • Hybrid learning: combines face-to-face and distance learning.


The specific situations of COVID-19 crisis have also fostered family-based learning and have enhanced the content of literacy programs through intersectoral collaboration and new partnerships.


Message from the Director-General of UNESCO


We share some fragments of the message of Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Literacy Day:


“On this International Literacy Day, we celebrate the power of literacy and education, and the enormous strides made in the last few decades. According to our most recent data, in 2019 more than 86% of the world’s population knew how to read and write, compared to 68% in 1979.


But the fundamental right to learn how to read and write is currently being challenged. It is under threat in Afghanistan. The education of all Afghans must continue. The country’s future depends on this – not only is education a fundamental right, it is also the best tool available for leveraging development.


At the same time, progress in literacy across the world continues to be hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.


As we celebrate International Literacy Day, UNESCO would like to invite all actors around the world, in the field of education and beyond, to mobilize for the literacy of young people, adults and women. So that they, too, can have the right to dream and be free”.


By: Juan Carlos Ugarelli

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