Framework for Action - Participants -Organizers
Online coverage - NGO Consultation
Latest news - Follow-up to the Dakar Forum
The opinion of EFA partners - Grassroots stories
The EFA 2000 Assessment - The findings
The regional meetings - Evaluation
Press releases - Press kit
Photo corner - Media contacts
The findings > Thematic Studies> Literacy>Part 2
  Country EFA reports
  Regional Frameworks for Action
 
 
2. STATUS AND TRENDS
 
Many countries have been actively striving to meet Jomtien's major goal of meeting the basic learning needs for all children, youth and adults, as well as the conjoint necessity for an adequate methodology for understanding whether such goals are being met. Current national and international capacities remain limited, however, for a variety of historical reasons. In the literacy domain, there is a long tradition of statistics gathering, but due to changing definitions of literacy, as well as a dearth of human capacity in the educational measurement field, the data on, and definitions of, literacy have long been open to question and debate.
 
2.1 Concepts and definitions
 

There are many definitions for literacy. All relate in some way, at their core, to an individual's ability to understand printed text and to communicate through print. Most contemporary definitions portray literacy in relative rather than absolute terms. They assume that there is no single level of skill or knowledge that qualifies a person as "literate," but rather that there are multiple levels and kinds of literacy (e.g., numeracy, technological literacy). In order to have bearing on real life situations, definitions of literacy must be sensitive to skills needed in out-of-school contexts, as well as to school-based competency requirements.

Two of the better known definitions of literacy are:

"A person is literate who can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his everyday life...A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community..." (UNESCO, 1978)

"Using printed and written information to function in society to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential." (OECD/Statistics Canada, 1995)

 
Most definitions of literacy have traditionally included calculating skills as part of the broad definition of literacy, but often these have been limited primarily to the four arithmetic operations. It is now widely thought that numeracy assessment should encompass a broad range of skills, thought processes, and background knowledge (formal and /or informal). Numeracy enables interpreting, acting upon and communicating about mathematical information in a wide range of everyday or work-related and other life contexts, and is needed as well for effective functioning in a world of amounts, prices, weights, distances, and so forth. Thus, literacy and numeracy are now considered to be at the centre of the educational goals not only of children in school, but youth and adults in need of further education.
 
The question of literacy definitions has both conceptual and practical dimensions (Venezky et al., 1990). Historically, and especially before World War II, it was possible to make an arbitrary distinction between those who had been to school and those who had not; this was especially obvious in the newly independent countries of the developing world, which were just beginning to provide public schooling to more than a relatively small elite. As the 21st century begins, this situation has changed dramatically. While there are still millions of adults who have never attended school, in even the poorest countries of the world, the majority of the population in the two youngest generations (up to about age 40 years) has attended some school. While this leaves open the serious question of the level of literacy of this often minimally -schooled population, it nonetheless points to a world with a much more variegated landscape of literacy skills, levels of achievement, and degree of regular use.
 
Jomtien influenced the definitional aspect of the literacy goal by broadening the discussion to that of basic learning needs or competencies (BLCs), which are seen not only in terms of mastery of the 3 Rs, but also in terms of other knowledge, problem-solving and life skills. Together, BLCs are thought to promote empowerment and access to a rapidly changing world. They should support independent functioning and coping with practical problems or choices as a parent or worker or citizen, and are seen as critical gatekeepers to job entry and societal advancement in all countries. Thus, when defining BLCs, there is a need to refer both to formal school-based skills (such as ability to read prose text or to understand mathematical notations) and also the ability to manage functional tasks and demands, regardless of whether such competencies were developed through formal or non-formal education, or through personal experiences in diverse informal learning situations. The challenge of changing definitions is not a trivial one, and will influence not only how policy makers view literacy goals, but also how programme developers will seek to promote literacy and adult education in the 21st century.
 
While the primary focus of this paper is on adult education in developing countries and for the most disadvantaged, it is important to take note of the important advances that have been made in adult education, some of which were highlighted at CONFINTEA-V, the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education (Hamburg), at which the following definition was provided: "The objectives of youth and adult education … are to develop the autonomy and the sense of responsibility of people and communities, to reinforce the capacity to deal with the transformations taking place in the economy, in culture and in society…, in short to enable people and communities to take control of their destiny and society…." (UIE, 1997). As can be seen, this definition of adult education takes a worldwide perspective, and helps to provide a framework for much of the activities that agencies and governments will support in the coming years.
 
 
2.2 The changing nature of literacy assessment
 
Since the 1950s, there have been relatively few changes in the reporting of literacy statistics by UNESCO, which began to provide standardized information to other agencies for the purpose of international comparisons. The methodology for gathering such data appears simple enough, but contains a certain number of assumptions which call into question the reliability and validity of the data as currently collected. Literacy rates in each country are most often derived in one of two ways: either the national government provides these 'rates' as a function of some census information (often outdated by as much as one or two decades), where individuals are asked if they are or are not 'literate'; or, primary school completion rates are used as a way to calculate presumed 'literates' that are 15 or 16 years and older. These data often require a certain amount of adjustment due to population growth, changes in national methods of calculation, and national changes in language policy.
 
Such literacy data suffer from some serious flaws, compounded often by the lack of up-to-date census information. Most importantly, the traditional classification of individuals as "literate" versus "illiterate" is now of relatively little value, though it remains a form of classification much in use today. The situation in the year 2000 is much more complex, as some contact is now made with primary schooling, non-formal education programmes, and the mass-media by the vast majority of families in developing countries. Indeed, it is the rare society today that includes more than a small number of individuals who, for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons are unaware of the meaning and uses of reading and writing systems (Wagner, 1990; ILI/UNESCO, 1998). There also exist enormous within-country differences, as schooling and literacy may vary dramatically by gender, ethnicity, and urban and rural residence.
 

Literacy is more usefully seen as a set of individual skills, but these skills may be thought to be sufficient or insufficient, depending on the social, cultural and political context of any given society. Thus, being able to read a newspaper may justify the label of "literate" in one context, but in a second context may be a less relevant measure than a mother's ability to fill in a government health form for her sick child. Access to credible data about the status of BLCs can offer policy makers and planners several advantages, and enable them to:

Judge the current status of basic skills within the out-of-school youth and adult populations, irrespective of former school attendance (for example, see a recent study on the impact of schooling on literacy skills, see Box 1);

Identify skills deficiencies among out-of-school youths and young adults (or subgroups within these populations) which have economic or societal implications and that can serve as targets for interventions;

Know more about the relative effectiveness of existing formal and non-formal programmes; and

Make further progress towards meeting the 1990 Jomtien goal of reducing illiteracy by 50%.

 
 

Box 1. Bangladesh: Assessing Basic Learning Skills

Rates of illiteracy in Bangladesh have been consistently high, some 62% overall and 74% of the female population; Bangladesh remains the nation with the fourth highest number of illiterates in the world. To assess literacy levels in Bangladesh, researchers needed to develop instruments to measure whether or not a person had achieved the essential basic learning skills considered necessary for him or her to function at a minimum level of competence in Bengali society. These basic skills could be described as the minimum level required for self-sustained development. A test of basic learning skills was developed, for reading, writing, and oral and written mathematics for an assessment of a national sample of over 5000 individuals age 11 years and older living in rural areas. The highest level in each subject area was judged by a panel to be the minimum required to, for example, allow people to function in the market place, read passages of simple text independently and write very brief messages. Satisfactory internal consistency measures of reliability were obtained for the items on each subject level. In addition, data indicated substantial agreement between the objective ratings and self-assessments. A total of 29% of the tested sample indicated that they could read, and 24% that they could write a letter. However, almost 30% of the sample failed to master any of the levels the four subject areas tested. While evidence showed that basic learning skills and formal schooling were related, 36% had dropped out by the end of grade 3, at which point the majority had not mastered the basic skills in any of the four subjects tested. Indeed, those who had completed only 3 years of primary school showed levels of basic skills which were only marginally better than those who had never attended school in Bangladesh. Adapted from Greaney et al. (1999).

 
In measuring learning achievement, there are a range of studies - national and international - that have focused on reading, math, science, and so forth, both in school and out. For example, the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) undertook a number of important international comparative studies of learning achievement, such as the 1992 Reading/Literacy study (Elley, 1992) of 9 and 14 year olds in 32 countries (including a number of LDCs such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Botswana), and the 1996 international Math/Science study (TIMSS) of 4th and 8th grade students in 26 countries (including LDCs such as Thailand, Iran). And the 1995 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) study, in 6 OECD countries, measured out-of-school reading, writing and math skills in adults aged 16-65 years (OECD/Statistics Canada, 1995, 1997). Each of these studies contained somewhat parallel methodologies for the measurement of learning achievement, such as the use of item sampling pools, translation/back-translation methods, and psychometric validation for item rejection.
 
 
While there is legitimate interest (and sometime significant amounts of funding) for such international comparative studies, there has been less interest (and less funding) for efforts to measure basic learning achievement at the programme level. This observation appears particularly obvious in LDCs, where NGO-based programmes rarely have the capacity to engage in empirically sound self-evaluation, and where international agencies infrequently have the resources (human or fiscal) to invest in evaluations that include learning achievement (there are some well-known exceptions to this generalization, such as BRAC in Bangladesh or TOSTAN in Senegal). With a risk of possible oversimplification, it seems fair to say that many (if not most) of the innovative educational programmes sponsored by development agencies in collaboration with governmental or non-governmental agencies, seldom have the benefit of formative or summative evaluations which include learning achievement; nor, with few exceptions, have such programmes invested in local capacity building (for a more detailed discussion, see ILI/UNESCO, 1998).
 
While UNESCO (1978) includes "reading, writing and calculation" in its definition of functional literacy, international agency data has typically been gathered only on reading and writing. Indeed, separate indices on numeracy rates for UN member nations have never been provided, and very little attention has been paid to the arithmetic part of the definition by international organizations and development planners (see Gal, 1993). Survey information has rarely been gathered on mathematical abilities in Third World countries, and the few literacy evaluations that have taken place which include separate analyses for numeracy generally provide insufficient detail for judging specific numeracy abilities.
 
In the area of learning achievement of BLCs, some new trends are discernable. A low-cost, culturally sensitive assessment framework that combine elements of household surveys (e.g., using moderately sized samples) with the use of measurement tools that are attuned to local and national needs has recently been development (see ILI/UNESCO, 1999; see Box 2). While maintaining a low level of operational and human resources costs, such assessment designs can satisfy the needs of international and national agencies for credible data as a pre-condition for supporting or investing in new human development initiatives. Further, these data can be also used to provide impact or evaluation data about national and local programmes that teach basic skills.
 
 

Box 2. Low Cost Methods of Literacy Assessment

Literacy tests have ranged traditionally from simple questions such as 'can you read and write,' to signing one's name, to reading a short paragraph on a life-relevant topic, to answering multiple-choice questions on a test battery. The proposed assessment scheme for reading is based on a matrix of reading skills and domains of print. This matrix can be used to define four ability levels: none, prerequisite, basic, and advanced. Reading skills, in this scheme are divided into three general categories: decoding, comprehension, applied skills. Three domains of print are described, including (1) prose text (e.g., newspapers, pamphlet, books, stories, etc.); (2) documents (e.g., official forms, labels, advertisements, bills, receipts, etc.); and (3) decontextualized print (e.g., letters, words, phrases, and sentences). Levels of reading may be defined as follows:

None or non-reader level. This level refers to those individuals who, for all practical purposes, do not possess even the rudiments of reading skills, and cannot, for example, recognize more than a few letters of the alphabet at most.

Prerequisite level. Prerequisites to reading competency include letter recognition, decoding, and "sounding out" of short texts. In some languages, such as English or Arabic, the relation of printed text to oral language is not at all simple and may require extensive knowledge of the linguistic, semantic, and grammatical structure of the language just to pronounce a printed text. Thus, decoding skill must be operationalized with respect to specific language and script contexts.

Basic level. A basic level in reading ability can be defined as skill in "reading to learn" and "reading to do." The former set of skills may be seen as most related to school-based reading achievement, where the focus is on reading comprehension as a means for learning about content domains. The latter set of skills are more common to out-of-school functional literacy needs such as reading signs, following procedural directions, locating a specific item on a bus schedule, and other applied tasks.

Advanced level. Advanced skills are built on those used in basic level tasks, but are applied to more complex tasks and print domains. As noted earlier, advanced skills are equivalent to a level of skill for those who have successfully completed secondary school curriculum or its equivalent. Adapted from ILI/UNESCO (1999).

 

2.3 Statistical trends in literacy worldwide
 
Literacy and illiteracy, when considered in statistical terms, can provide useful comparisons by region, country, gender, and so forth, over time. The analysis of illiteracy rates by country and region is helpful for identifying populations most in need, and for recognizing regional trends and disparities.
 
Tables 1 and 2 present primary school and adult literacy statistics for world's adult population, with developing countries categorized by region and country. Figure 1 presents a graphical view of illiteracy rates by region. According to UNESCO (1997b), there were an estimated 962 million illiterates in the world in 1990, 885 million in 1995, and an estimated 887 million in 2000, constituting 27% of the adult population in the developing countries. Of these illiterates, the majority are women, in some countries accounting for up to two-thirds of adult illiteracy. Regionally, Eastern and Southern Asia have the highest number of illiterates, with an estimated 71% of the world's total illiterate population. The Sub-Saharan Africa and Arab regions have about the same (40%) adult illiteracy rate, with Latin America at about half this rate. Overall, the geographic distribution of adult illiterates has not changed very much over the Jomtien decade (or over the past several decades).
 
As shown in Figure 2, statistics indicate that illiterate adults in industrialized (developed) countries make up a small fraction of the adult population. In 1980, the estimated illiteracy rate for industrialized countries was 3%, and declined to 1% by 1997. However, utilizing such aggregate figures can be misleading in two ways. First, there are parts of Southern Europe, for example in Portugal, where the illiteracy rate in 1990 was estimated to be as high as 15%, which is about the same as the rate for the region of Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole, and higher than several individual countries in that region. Second, and more importantly, the standards used by UNESCO for developing countries are no longer considered appropriate for industrialized countries, which have (as noted earlier) developed their own measures for assessing functional literacy problems (see OECD/Statistics Canada, 1995; ILI/UNESCO, 1998). Thus, comparisons of illiteracy rates in developing and industrialized countries can be misleading, since definitions of literacy and illiteracy now vary widely. One consequence of these changes in standards is that literacy (illiteracy and low-literacy) have seen a greatly increased policy interest in OECD countries as well as in developing countries over the WCEFA decade.
 
 
2.4 Gender differences
 
One of the most salient factors affecting literacy rates worldwide is that of the gender disparity. Of the almost one billion illiterates currently in the world, the large majority are women. Figure 3 shows trends in illiteracy rates by gender and by region from 1980 to 1995. Although there are large variations by region, illiteracy rates invariably are higher for women than for men in developing countries. A summary of gender gaps for 87 countries published by UNESCO (1990) found that: (1) in 36 countries, all of them in Africa or Asia, the difference between male and female literacy rates is over 20%; (2) in 26 countries, nearly all of them in Africa and Asia, the male-female difference is between 10% and 20%; and (3) in 25 countries, most of which are in Latin America and the Caribbean, the disparity is less than 10%. Unfortunately, the gender gap in illiteracy rates has only declined only moderately in recent decades, though some regions (Eastern Asia/Oceania) seem to have made major gains. In some countries improvements due to increased primary school access for girls have been noted, while in other countries differential completion of primary schooling favors boys, hence maintaining or increasing the gender gap in literacy for adolescent girls. If educational access trends do not change dramatically in the coming decades, it is estimated that male/female parity in literacy will be not be reached for over a century.
 

Box 3. Gender Trends of Illiteracy in Morocco

In Morocco, a direct literacy assessment module was designed and integrated into the National Survey on Household Living Standards, sponsored by the World Bank. The main objectives of this survey were to examine in greater detail the range and variability of literacy skills and knowledge among individuals, and especially among women. The literacy survey consisted of nine sections, including self-report questions on literacy skills and behaviours, questions on basic healthcare behaviours, assessment of information location skills, mental and written numeracy assessments, and assessments of reading and writing in Arabic. A national stratified sample of 2240 participants received the survey. The most significant finding was that Morocco has cut its illiteracy rate by one-half during the past three decades, and the trend is one of continuing improvement. However, the disparities in literacy attainment between men and women (as well as between urban and rural populations) remain a major issue. Surprisingly, the gender gap in literacy among the present younger generation is even larger than that of their grand-parents or even parents. Whether this is the result of selective out-migration of literate individuals from the countryside to the towns, or of insufficient educational access and quality in rural areas, is a question with profound policy implications, and requires further investigation. It clearly shows that males have received more education than females during this time period. Results of the study suggest that part of the explanation for high levels of illiteracy in rural areas is the relative frequency of households in which both parents are illiterate, while in the urban areas men are more likely to marry a woman who has some literacy skills. The evidence indicates that completely-illiterate households are by far more likely to raise illiterate children, while maternal literacy positively affects both boys' and girls' enrolment and attainment. Adapted from: Lavy, et al. (1995).

 

2.5 Rural and urban differences
 
Table 3 shows illiteracy rates for urban and rural populations in 18 representative countries. In most of these countries, illiteracy rates in rural areas are more than twice as high as in urban areas. The importance of this statistic becomes even more obvious when one considers that in many of these countries the rural population is much higher than the urban population. These statistics have implications for literacy campaigns and adult literacy programmes, since the population density of illiterates can have a significant impact on choice of language, recruitment of literacy trainers, and concentration of effort. Furthermore, as a predominantly rural phenomenon in developing countries, the preponderance of urban educated teachers tends to maintain a cultural gulf which has continued for centuries.
 
It should be noted that illiteracy in industrialized countries may be following a rather different pattern. The low-literacy problem in countries like the United States, Canada and France is largely due to the presence of large numbers of minority populations that immigrated with little schooling and/or dropped out of school before attaining sufficient literacy skills. These minority populations have tended to become concentrated in large urban areas, thereby pushing urban illiteracy/low-literacy rates higher than in rural areas.
 
2.6 Other factors related to literacy
 
Literacy has often been seen as not only a 'good thing' in and of itself, but as also having a variety of by-products of great social and economic importance, such as improved health, lowered fertility, increased income, and so forth. Thus, over the years, international agencies and national governments have tracked other factors as they are related to literacy statistics. A brief synopsis follows:
 
Age. As shown in Table 4, the over-45 years-of-age group has the highest illiteracy rate in all regions (including OECD countries as well, but not shown in this table), which most likely can be attributed to the fewer years of schooling (or poorer quality of schooling) that this group received. The illiteracy rate for this older group is expected to remain high until well into the next quarter century, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States and Southern Asia. A second observation is that there has been a large decrease in the past 20 years in the illiteracy rate of those in the 15-19 and 20-24 age groups, which can be attributed, conversely, to the rise in access to schooling.
 
Schooling. As shown in Table 2, primary schooling and adult illiteracy are very highly correlated, in particular since most developing countries use the rate of primary schooling (as noted earlier) as a principal proxy variable for determining who is labelled as "literate." In addition, Figure 4 shows that out-of-school youth, in spite of increases in the rate of school enrolments in LDCs, continues to be high, and is growing rather dramatically in Africa. Overall, even though enrolments have gone up in many developing countries, the real impact on literacy achievement remains unknown for the most part, since surveys of learning achievement following schooling have rarely been undertaken.
 
Health. As shown in Figure 5, life expectancy and literacy are highly correlated overall, so much so that those countries with the lowest literacy rates actually have a life expectancy of only half of those that live in the most literate developing countries! Furthermore, given the common recognition of the key roles that women play in fertility planning, infant care/nutrition, and the health education, it is not surprising that female illiteracy is seen as a major obstacle to health and social development. As shown in Figures 6 and 7, women's literacy rates are also correlated with declining fertility rates and declining child mortality rates in LDCs. It should be recalled, however, that even though the cross-national correlations between female literacy and health indicators are often statistically significant, there is remarkably little evidence which shows that there is a causal relationship between these variables. Recent evidence indicates that both formal schooling and literacy may have independent effects on the health and fertility outcomes of women, but the requisite longitudinal studies have yet to be carried out (LeVine et al., 2000).
 
Economic well-being. There is a widespread belief that literacy and economic well-being (at the individual and national level) go hand in hand. One way to evaluate this assertion is to plot GNP per capita against adult literacy rates in developing countries (see Figure 6). Also, nearly two decades ago the World Bank sponsored a series of studies to show the impact of literacy and schooling on agricultural productivity (Jamison & Moock, 1984). More recently, in industrialized countries, literacy levels have been shown to be one of the strongest predictors of individual income (OECD/Statistics Canada, 1995, 1997). These data are among those that are most often cited in terms of the importance of investments in literacy (although these correlational data suffer from the same non-causation issue cited in the health section above).
 
2.7 Accountability and impact
 
In addition to understanding literacy levels as a statistical phenomenon, there is an increasing need to be able to analyze the effectiveness of literacy and adult education programmes as they operate in a variety of settings on the ground. These efforts, commonly thought of as programme evaluation work, constitute an important element in our understanding of literacy and adult education, and how service provision can be improved and expanded.
 
As with programme evaluation work more generally, literacy and adult education programme evaluation would normally include formative (on-going) and summative (post-hoc) evaluations. Each of these might include a focus on planning and strategies for literacy work, programme implementation and management, student monitoring, attendance and retention, skill acquisition, integration with other agencies, and post-literacy activities. Serious work has been accomplished in some of these areas, mainly in terms of formative studies and post-hoc analyses of management; only in the latter part of the WCEFA decade has work in this area begun again (see, e.g., Burchfield, 1997; Carron et al. 1989; Easton, 1998, ILI/UNESCO, 1998; LeVine et al., 2000; Okech et al., 1999). With the expansion of interest in literacy worldwide, and with the push of the recommendations of the 1990 WCEFA, far greater attention will need to be paid to rigorous and in-depth evaluation of literacy and adult education programmes. Indeed, it may be that one of the key impediments to expanding public and government support for adult literacy programmes has been the failure of those who support adult literacy programmes to provide the type of reliable databases and impact evaluations typically utilized in other educational efforts.
---------------------------
Return to contents
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
[ Discussion Forum | Contact | Site map | Search this site | top ]