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From pages to progress: Observing International Literacy Day worldwide

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell






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On September 8th each year, the world comes together to celebrate International Literacy Day, a global observance that highlights the importance of literacy and its role in shaping individuals and societies. This day, established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1966, serves as a reminder of the transformative power of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. UNESCO, founded in 1945, strives to build peace upon “the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity,” developing education tools to help people “live as global citizens free of hate and intolerance.”

In this blog post, we'll delve into the history of International Literacy Day, explore its significance and ways to celebrate it, as well as discuss how literacy not only supports academic integrity, but also social growth and student development around the world.

What is International Literacy Day?

The roots of International Literacy Day can be traced back to the World Conference of Ministers of Education on the Eradication of Illiteracy, held in Tehran, Iran, in 1965. This conference brought together education leaders from around the world to address the urgent need to combat illiteracy and promote education as a fundamental human right.

As a result of the conference, UNESCO declared September 8th as International Literacy Day, with the goal of raising awareness about literacy issues and encouraging efforts to improve global literacy rates. According to UNESCO, there were at least 763 million young people and adults lacking basic literacy skills in 2020, exacerbated by the pandemic, climate change, and regional conflicts. “In low- and middle-income countries,” UNESCO says, “the share of 10-year-old children who could not read and understand a simple text with comprehension has increased from 57% in 2019 to an estimated 70% in 2022.”

International Literacy Day holds immense significance on both a global and individual level. It serves as a rallying point for governments, organizations, educators, and communities to come together to promote literacy and address the challenges that hinder access to education. Illiteracy is not only a barrier to personal development but also a hindrance to economic progress and social cohesion. By promoting literacy, we create a pathway for individuals to access information, participate in civic activities, and contribute meaningfully to their societies.

What is the impact of illiteracy on the individual and on society?

Literacy, according to the The International Literacy Association, is “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.”

Illiteracy affects individuals and society in myriad ways. According to the World Literacy Foundation, around 3 billion people around the world struggle with basic level reading and writing, and around 1 in 5 people are completely illiterate. And as the global economy moves more towards a knowledge economy, it becomes increasingly imperative for individuals to have basic literacy skills in order to contribute to—and even participate in— their communities.

Berkman et al. (2004) found that people with low levels of literacy are more likely to experience adverse health outcomes, have poor health literacy, and practice poor health behaviors. They may experience poorer employment opportunities, lower self-esteem, and become a part of a multi-generational cycle of disadvantage. In their whitepaper entitled, “The Economic & Social Cost of Illiteracy”, the World Literacy Foundation determined that low levels of literacy and illiteracy is estimated to cost the global economy approximately 1 trillion dollars (£800 billion) due to costs associated with unemployment, welfare, social programs, and reduced government tax revenue and productivity.

“The right to literacy is a basic, fundamental human right,” says Dr. Bernadette Dwyer, President of the International Literacy Association. “However, [around] 750 million people around the world cannot read and write. Two-thirds of these are female. Despite some progress, gender disparity remains.”

Leah Witcher Jackson, Associate Dean and Professor of Law, Baylor University School of Law, posits that “focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism” (2009). Indeed, countless studies—including this one from 2021 and this one from 2022— highlight the impact of women’s education and literacy on improved maternal health, reduced infant mortality and fertility rates to increased prevention against HIV and AIDS. In a 2010 UNESCO study, researchers determined that a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5 than a child born to an illiterate woman.

With this information in mind, International Literacy Day has the potential to become so much more than simply a holiday to observe. It can bring our global community together, helping us to work towards greater gender and social equity, bringing literacy to the forefront of the conversation and inspiring us to take action, however and wherever we can.

What is the connection between literacy and academic integrity?

Academic integrity is a cornerstone of education, emphasizing honesty, fairness, and ethical conduct in all academic endeavors. It fosters respect for the learning process and is critical for life-long learning. Literacy plays a crucial role in upholding academic integrity by enabling students to engage critically with texts, evaluate sources, and produce original, well-informed work. A literate individual is better equipped to avoid plagiarism, properly cite sources, and uphold the principles of honesty and intellectual integrity.

Moreover, literacy enhances students' ability to engage in thoughtful discussions on their learning journey and express their ideas coherently and persuasively. This skillset is essential for fostering a culture of respectful dialogue and intellectual exchange, which are integral components of academic integrity. In fact, with the media’s current attention on generative AI writing tools and their use (and misuse) in education, digital and AI literacy amongst educators and students emerges as an integral part of our modern education.

Supporting student growth through literacy

The impact of literacy on student growth is profound and far-reaching. Literacy equips students with the tools to become lifelong learners, enabling them to acquire new knowledge, adapt to evolving technologies, and navigate complex information landscapes. As students develop their literacy skills, they become more confident in their abilities, fostering a growth mindset that encourages them to tackle challenges and embrace learning opportunities.

Furthermore, literacy is closely intertwined with critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Through reading and analysis, students learn to assess information critically, make informed decisions, and approach problems from multiple perspectives. These skills not only contribute to academic success but also prepare students for active participation in their communities and the workforce. In a study on the effect of adult literacy on individuals' income and employability in Brazil, results indicate that “after controlling for observable characteristics, there is a 21.25% increase in wages for individuals who become literate” (Rocha & Ponczek, 2011). Truly, there are countless ways in which literacy can shape the trajectory of a young person’s life.

How can you celebrate International Literacy Day?

This year’s International Literacy Day will be celebrated worldwide under the theme, “Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies.”

UNESCO hopes that this year’s celebration will inspire global efforts to accelerate progress towards education and lifelong learning and to reflect on the role of literacy in building more inclusive, peaceful, just, and sustainable societies.

Let’s take a look at a few ways we can recognize International Literacy Day this year in the classroom and beyond.

How to celebrate International Literacy Day in the classroom
  • Write a reflective journal entry. It can be on a topic pertaining to global literacy and gender or social equality, or a reflection on what literacy means to you. Taking a moment to consider your learning journey and how you gained the skills to read and write helps to personalize and give meaning to this significant day.
  • Read your favorite book to a friend (or family member). The very act of reading together celebrates the joy that literacy can bring to our communities. By sharing a beloved story with another person, you honor UNESCO’s vision of building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies.
How to celebrate International Literacy Day beyond the classroom
  • Visit the library. Libraries are transformative spaces that can open whole new worlds to young readers. Whether in your school’s library or your local community library, take a moment to stop by and check out a new book, perhaps one from The New York Times “What Book Should You Read Next?” list or one of your own choosing.
  • Volunteer. As a changemaker for a more peaceful and equitable society, volunteering your time is one of the most meaningful and valuable ways to recognize this holiday. Tutoring someone in writing or supporting a local literacy event in your community can make a significant difference.
  • Start a Little Free Library or organize a book swap. A Little Free Library is a “take a book, share a book” free book exchange, where community members can help literacy to thrive. Commonly, it is a small, wooden box permanently located in a public space where anyone can drop off a book and/or grab a new one to enjoy. (Administrators: consider putting in a free library outside of your school to create a gathering space for families and students.) And if a permanent library isn’t available to you, a book swap with community members can serve as a fun opportunity to share texts and make connections.
  • Donate. There is always a need for funding within organizations that affect positive change on local and international levels. UNESCO and Room to Read are both organizations with a goal to increase global literacy and improve gender and social equality, but those are just two of many that would benefit from financial support.
Why we observe International Literacy Day worldwide

International Literacy Day serves as a powerful reminder of the transformative potential of literacy in shaping individuals, communities, and societies. As we celebrate this day, let us recognize the vital role of literacy in upholding academic integrity, fostering student growth, and promoting a more just and equitable world. By promoting literacy, we empower individuals to unlock their full potential, coming together to build a brighter future for generations to come.