The Importance of Literacy
by Rachel Auslander
I began reading at the age of four. One of the first memories that I can recall is carrying around a "Strawberry Shortcake" book at my preschool, eager to show off my abilities to anyone who would care to listen. I devoured books as I grew up. I couldn’t seem to get enough, sometimes reading two books simultaneously. I was able to go on adventures to faraway lands, learn new things, and put myself into the shoes of other people (as well as animals and mythical creatures) without ever leaving my bedroom. As I grew up, though, I began to read less. Not because I didn’t want to, but rather due to the busy schedule thrust upon me as a high school student.
My decision to de-prioritize reading was a privilege. Not every girl is able to have this experience. Not because of her abilities, but rather because of where she lives.
Literacy is the ability to read and write a simple sentence. Reading and writing become intuitive from use over time. Unlike talking, however, people cannot learn these skills without being taught. While talking is our basic form of communication, reading and writing are essential for fundamental activities in daily life and learning.
Although 85% of the world passes basic literacy standards, there are still 757 million adults (15 years and older) who cannot write or read a sentence. Two-thirds are female, and most live in developing countries. There are 250 million children who cannot read or write, not due to developmental abilities, but rather a lack of an education.
A girl living in Mali, for example, may not be able to go to school because of restraining societal beliefs, family pressures, a long journey, and high costs. This girl may grow up selling small tokens to make money for her family, and will not be able to lose herself in a book as a pastime. She won’t be able to momentarily escape her situation by immersing herself in another world, albeit fictional.
When this girl grows up, she won’t be able to acquire a higher paying job, and will be stuck in the cycle of poverty. She won’t be able to read a local newspaper, follow written directions, or understand a form she needs to sign. Although she may be able to communicate well by speaking, being able to read and write is empowering. It gives her a second voice that can transcend her community.
Take Malala Yousafzai. She went to school, despite the Taliban’s influence in Pakistan, and gained a voice through her anonymous blog for the BBC. Education gave her confidence. Although Malala was also outspoken in her community, her blog gave her an international outlet, which drew some much-needed attention to girls’ education in restrictive communities.
Literacy levels the global playing field. People who may not be able to obtain a formal education can learn to read and write through out-of-school methods. All it takes is a book and a person willing to help.
Illiteracy is a global problem. Although most of the illiterate population lives in Africa and South Asia, 32 million adults in the United States cannot read. Yes, even in the United States, where every child is entitled to a free primary and secondary public education, 14% of the population is illiterate.
Unfortunately, the literacy rate has not improved over the last ten years. In the “land of opportunity,” people who cannot read and write are held back from living up to their full potential, just like their counterparts in the developing world.
In today’s social media obsessed world, many of us take reading and writing for granted. We are surrounded by text, whether it’s sending a message to a friend or scrolling through our Twitter feeds. Reading a Buzzfeed list or taking an online quiz is effortless and often a distraction. Ironically, someone who is illiterate can’t even understand an 140 character tweet. While 350,000 tweets are sent per minute, constantly narrating the life of the average smartphone equipped citizen, there are people who don’t have the capability to express their views on a keyboard or on paper. Isn’t it time for everyone to have the chance to tell their own story?