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Why Your Company Should Recognise International Literacy Day

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It’s International Literacy Day today, so it’s a good time to look at the important issue of literacy and how it affects businesses and society.

If you don’t think the issue of literacy is relevant to you or your business, think again. We’ll look at some startling literacy statistics that may show you the problem is bigger and closer to home than you realised.

After giving a basic literacy definition and going through some facts and figures, we’ll discuss some ways to celebrate International Literacy Day. And we’ll finish by going through some steps you can recommend if you know someone who struggles with some level of illiteracy.

The Facts About Literacy

Let’s start by talking about what literacy is. The basic literacy definition from Chambers Dictionary is:

“the ability to read and write”

That’s the definition used for most international literacy rates. If nine out of ten adults in a population can read and write, for example, then the literacy rate is 90%. 

Overall, UNESCO says there are at least 750 million people worldwide who cannot read or write, and the problem is continuing into the next generation, as 250 million children aren't acquiring basic literacy skills.

Often, the problem is a simple lack of access to basic education, often due to poverty. Most of the countries with low literacy rates are also some of the poorest countries in the world, such as Chad (22%), Afghanistan (32%) and South Sudan (27%). War and instability can also interrupt children’s educations and prevent them from becoming literate.

There’s also a gender component—in some countries, the education of boys is prioritised over that of girls, with the result that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women.

UNESCO started International Literacy Day back in 1966 as a way of raising awareness of the importance of literacy and moving towards a more literate world. The theme of the 2019 celebration is ‘Literacy and Multilingualism’.

International Literacy Day
International Literacy Day

Functional Illiteracy

There’s also another dimension to literacy, and it’s one that might hit closer to home for business owners. The secondary definition in Chambers Dictionary is:

“the ability to use language in an accomplished and efficient way”

Many people who acquired basic reading and writing skills at school still struggle with tasks that go beyond the basics. People who can't manage everyday living and employment tasks involving reading or writing are classified as functionally illiterate. 

The causes of functional illiteracy are diverse. It could be due to things like:

  • lack of access to education
  • emotional trauma disrupting the ability to learn
  • undiagnosed dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, and other learning difficulties and disabilities

Functional illiteracy may also affect people living outside the land of their birth. They may be literate in their first language but lack the necessary reading and writing skills in their new language.

In the United States, there are about 15 million functionally illiterate adults in the workforce, and 30 million people (14% of adults) who are unable to perform simple literacy activities. A 2001 study found that business lost billions of dollars a year due to low productivity, errors, and accidents attributed to functional illiteracy.

Similar statistics exist in other countries too, even where the official literacy rate is high. For example, according to the National Literacy Trust 16.4% of adults in England, or 7.1 million people, have “very poor literacy skills.”

In the past, there were plenty of jobs in industry or agriculture for which literacy skills weren't so important. But today, with the spread of technology, purely manual labour is becoming less prevalent, and many more jobs require workers at all levels to use computers, fill out forms, read and write reports, etc.

Given the large numbers, it’s quite possible that you've got functionally illiterate employees in your company. Even if you don’t, illiteracy has a negative impact on the society that your firm is part of. According to the Literacy Foundation, the consequences of illiteracy include:

  • unemployment
  • poor health
  • lower economic growth
  • lower levels of community involvement and civic participation

So, what can you do to help? Let’s look at some possible International Literacy Day activities you could initiate in your business.

7 Ways to Celebrate International Literacy Day

If the facts in the previous section have convinced you that literacy is an important issue for your business and society to tackle, here are some ideas for International Literacy Day activities. Some are just for a day, while others are things that you could do to support literacy throughout the year.

Ultimately, of course, there’s no limit to what you could do, so just use this list as a starting point and then let your own creativity run free!

1. Invite a Guest Speaker

One of the goals of International Literacy Day is to raise awareness, so why not invite a guest speaker to come to your workplace and talk to employees about the causes and consequences of illiteracy?

It could be someone who works for a literacy charity or perhaps in education. You could focus on literacy initiatives close to home or take a more global view. It really is up to you.

2. Support a Literacy Charity

There are loads of organisations doing fantastic work to support greater literacy both at home and abroad. You could choose to mark International Literacy Day by making a donation to one of those organisations, either from company funds or from funds raised by employees by holding an event (see below).

Or you could have a greater impact by forming a permanent partnership, agreeing to donate a small percentage of profits each year to your chosen charity. Regular donations allow organisations to plan their projects much better in advance, knowing the funds will be available.

3. Give Away Books

One of the best ways to boost literacy is by fostering a love of reading. So why not take some books that you or your family have read and enjoyed, and share your love of them by donating them to a local school, university, library, or other organisation?

Encourage your employees to do the same and encourage them to ask their friends and family to do the same, and suddenly you may find yourself with a lot of books on your hands! 

You could either do this as a one-off book drive or as a regular activity throughout the year. If you've got a public-facing business like a coffee shop, you could set up your own “free library,” a shelf on which you place books available for people to take and read. You could also encourage customers to contribute their own donated books, ensuring a constantly replenished supply and encouraging greater reading year-round.

4. Run a Book Fair

As a variation on the above theme, you could, instead of donating the books, sell them at a book fair and donate the funds you raise to a literacy charity. This could be a fun event for staff and customers alike and could boost your reputation in the local community, while also raising much-needed funds to support literacy.

5. Support Your Local Library

Public libraries have been on the front lines of the battle for greater literacy for generations, providing a space for people on low incomes to access a huge array of knowledge and develop a love of reading, without spending a cent.

In many countries, however, libraries have been under attack from budget-cutting governments in recent years. The UK has seen almost 1,000 libraries closed and 10,000 library workers out of work in the past decade. 

So why not mark International Literacy Day by supporting your local library with donations of money and/or books, volunteer work, or whatever else they need.

People choosing books to read in a library
Libraries are an important means of support for literacy. (Image source: Envato Elements)

6. Hold a Read-a-Thon or Other Event

Read-a-thons are fun! Challenge your employees and/or customers to read as many books as they can in a given period, e.g. 24 hours. Have them post updates on social media with the event hashtag and give prizes for the most committed participants.

You could also make it a live event instead of online, with everyone gathering in your shop or office to read together, or you could spread it out over a longer period and challenge people to read a certain number of books per month or per year. There are loads of possibilities here.

And why not double the impact by making it a fund-raising event for a literacy charity? People could be sponsored a certain amount for each book they read, for example, which would both encourage them to read more and help to raise funds for a good cause.

7. Provide Literacy Training to Employees

As we saw in the previous section, literacy in the workplace is a very real problem. So, you can help by providing free training to any employees who need to improve their skills.

If you’re thinking you can’t afford it, think again. A study in Canada found that employers who paid for workplace literacy and essential skills (WLES) training benefited just as much as employees, and they more than recouped the cost of the training.

The cost of 20 hours of training was $2,300 per employee, plus the lost working hours. The return on investment, however, was an impressive 27% on average, with revenue gains of $2,000 and savings from improved productivity adding up to $1,900.

Providing training is also a great way to boost employee loyalty and retention. So it really does work for everyone: your employees get to improve their literacy skills, and you get more revenue, greater productivity, and more loyalty.

How to Boost Literacy Skills

What can you do if you know someone who struggles with literacy or if you need to improve your reading and writing skills yourself? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Identify the Causes

The first step is to understand why the person in question struggles with literacy. Is it because of a disruption to their schooling, or difficulties in a foreign language, or perhaps a learning difficulty? Identifying the cause will help to take the right steps in addressing the problem.

The good news is that conditions like dyslexia don’t stop people from learning to read and write. The problem occurs when these conditions go undiagnosed, which often happens and was especially common in earlier generations. In those cases, the children are unlikely to get the help they need, meaning that they may struggle with reading and writing and develop an understandable aversion to it that continues in later life. 

But if you understand what’s causing the reading and/or writing difficulties, a skilled teacher can help you overcome them.

2. Access Literacy Training

The next step is to access training. Many governments around the world recognise the importance of literacy and provide free or heavily subsidised adult literacy classes. Add to that the non-profit organisations running their own programs, and there’s a good chance that there’s a class in your area that you can take for little or no cost.

In the UK, for example, the National Literacy Trust lists a range of adult literacy resources from the UK government, unions, and other organisations. In the US, many states and cities run their own programs—here are the classes in New York City, for example.

3. Make a Habit of Reading

While classes can help you to learn basic literacy skills, the only way to reinforce them is through constant practice. So make a habit of reading on a daily basis, at whatever level you feel is right for you. This may be difficult or uncomfortable for people who have developed a long-held aversion to reading, but it'll get better over time.

The internet has a wealth of free reading material, of course, although it can be hard to know in advance what kind of language will be used. So, your local library or bookshop is also an important resource—the staff there may be able to help you find something that’s suitable for you.

There are also publishers like Gatehouse Books that specialise in producing books for adults who are learning to read. So, you can read books with simple language and vocabulary, but with topics and themes that are relevant to adults.

Woman reading a book
Develop a daily habit of reading to boost literacy. (Image source: Envato Elements)

The main thing is to read about things that interest you, so that it’s engaging and fun, rather than just being a chore. When you’ve found the resources that work well for you, commit to a certain amount of reading at a certain time each day, e.g. one hour every evening before going to bed. If you can continue and cement this habit, you’ll notice a big difference over time.

How Will You Mark International Literacy Day?

In this article, you’ve discovered some facts about literacy in the world today and some of the causes and consequences of illiteracy. We’ve also gone through some possible ways to celebrate International Literacy Day, and we’ve looked at how you or someone you know can work to improve their literacy skills.

What kinds of International Literacy Day activities will you arrange? Let us know in the comments. And head over to the International Literacy Day website for more resources and ideas.

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