Literacy creates leverage - even reading one page a day
Originally written August 18, 2016. Updated and published September 12, 2017.
Literacy has a cumulative effect - reading even one page a day can make a difference.
Two events have led me to look at this issue more closely, the second of which I’ll mention later. The first is that I’ve been volunteering to help someone with their literacy as part of a charity program. It involves both writing and reading practice. This person writes about half a page at a time, and I gently correct their errors and give encouragement. Likewise, with the one page of reading, I help with pronunciation and timing…but mostly, I try to make it fun.
Why is it important to make learning literacy fun? Because once learnt, literacy liberates so much human potential it’s not funny. It allows children, in particular, to find answers to questions – often by accident. In turn, this leads to the development of curiousity as a habit, and is a powerful catalyst for learning. But just as importantly, it develops social skills and perceptions. Reading fiction can help to develop the ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s position. Doing this mentally translates directly to being able to show empathy and understanding to each other in real life.
I count myself incredibly fortunate that I had a mother who understood all of this. She decided to pay off a set of encyclopaedias that her children could use throughout school. This was very much in the pre-digital era, and the lack of electronic distractions was a huge advantage. As a result of her foresight, I became a bookworm…and I remain one.
How do the effects of literacy play out socially?
The benefits of literacy are manifold. But lifting literacy is long, and hard, and slow….there are no shortcuts. This is particularly so when you consider how society treats those who suffer from poor literacy, for whatever reason.
Our education systems, in their usual infinite glory, manage to instil shame rather than actual learning. This manifests itself in kids feeling embarrassed and pained about their reading efforts, and actively avoiding it where possible. Kids are often ruthlessly honest in teasing each other, but calling someone “dumb” does immense damage in relation to learning.
Then the rest of our society compounds the damage. It’s not just economic options that expand or contract on the basis of literacy, but social ones as well. People with strong literacy develop the confidence to make appropriate contact with a broad range of people. People with poor literacy skills have trouble in expressing themselves, and social doors start swinging shut.
How do the effects of literacy play out economically?
In the digital era, to make things worse, literacy is no longer merely useful, but critical. Outsourcing or digitization means much of the work not requiring literacy skills in previous decades is now vanishing. As outlined in books like “The Big Sort” (http://www.thebigsort.com/), people are now increasingly living with people much like themselves. This trend removes a lot of serendipity in all sorts of ways. What happens to the spread of ideas if people separate geographically by education and income levels? A drift of people in both directions ends up with very dynamic cities and relatively stagnant regional towns and cities. Maybe it doesn’t improve over time in part because many ideas circulating in regional areas are obsolete echoes.
Not surprisingly, people are concentrating as well, in the world’s “superstar” cities. The “elephant curve” graph shown here may reflect what’s happening to the spread of ideas as well as to incomes. The cognitive elite in developed nations command the lion’s share of the income gains. Their understanding of developing systems and processes to help the spread of new ideas makes their work highly valuable.
How do the effects of literacy play out internationally?
Middle- and lower-income nations benefit as the spread of ideas links with rising productivity, creating a virtuous circle. These nations have a lot of ground to make up, and the process will take some time. However, many people in developed nations learn from yesterday’s economic recipes. Because of the premium now paid for creative problem-solving, yesterday’s solutions are cheaper elsewhere in the world market.
Because educational systems for the adult workforce in developed nations are stagnating, so are idea flow and idea generation. As a result, so are incomes. This stagnation appears across many different industries and locations. In essence, many regional areas in developed nations are stuck on something of an economic island. They are much higher cost than equivalent regions in other nations. But they often lack access to the networks and idea flow that occurs between the world’s most creative cities. This pattern is common across much of the developed world, and is showing up in current politics.
How do we recognise and solve the issues?
The second thing that got me thinking about literacy was that I did an online quiz to test my vocabulary. Allegedly – if any such quiz is valid - I performed in the top 5% of those who’d sat it. But someone else I knew got an incredibly low score….and this gave me a massive shock. He’s a friendly, sociable person I’d never considered as having literacy issues. Now, of course it’s possible this person was being flippant in the quiz, and has no such problems.
However, what if it hadn’t been a false result? If someone left high school early with literacy issues, would they be likely to be reading for pleasure a decade later? And would such reading be broadly based, causing them to continually be exposed to new ideas? Or would they be reading simpler material, because it didn’t threaten their self-respect?
I don’t pretend to have all (or even any) of the answers to these issues. Maybe, as with many issues, the first thing to do is to admit that we have a problem. And perhaps part of the answer lays in teaching people the implicit values of literacy, not just the external ones. After all, I’m seeing huge benefits start accruing to an individual on half a page of writing practice per day. What do those benefits look like worldwide, if education becomes a self-directed habit into adulthood?