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International Literacy Day: this is what it’s all about

Posted: August 10, 2020

International Literacy Day has been celebrated on 8 September for over 50 years. In preparation for this day, let’s find out more about the importance and benefits of global literacy.

Literacy skills refer to the ability to read and write. Now, imagine never learning to read or write; do you think you’d be where you are right now? Would you have made it through school or university? 

Literacy is something that we can easily take for granted. In fact, 774 million people worldwide are illiterate, and this has a significant impact on their livelihoods according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). 

A closer look at global literacy

If you take a closer look at global statistics, you’ll see that:

  • more than 100 million youth worldwide lack basic literacy skills
  • women make up two thirds of the 774 million people in the world who are illiterate.

So, illiteracy affects a good proportion of the world’s population, and not everyone is equally affected. 



Also, because it influences how we communicate, trade with and support each other, illiteracy can have far-reaching effects on global development.

There are many international efforts in support of improving literacy, and some are even backed by superstars.

Forest Whitaker, the award-winning American actor, is involved in various UNESCO campaigns. He’s even been appointed as a UNESCO Special Envoy – a member of the organisation who’s instrumental in upholding its standards.

When discussing literacy, Whitaker states that too many people are still left behind with at least one in every eight people worldwide still being illiterate. 

These people normally live in countries with high rates of poverty and conflict, and their societies can benefit greatly if every member can participate equally. 

And, if these individuals have access to literacy opportunities, they can gain valuable skills and become empowered to be leaders of sustainable development and peace in their communities.

But, the lack of literacy skills makes this a tough task.

How to build on International Literacy Day all year round


Supporting or launching initiatives aimed at improving people’s access to literary opportunities worldwide is a step in the right direction. 

Here are some examples of global efforts to improve literacy:

  • Save the Children is a humanitarian organisation with a focus on community development in vulnerable communities. Improving access to opportunities for quality education is a big part of their activities worldwide. In Mexico, Save the Children partners with GVI. Participants on this program volunteer to assist Save the Children staff members in their day-to-day activities, like teaching English language lessons.
  • help2read is another non-profit group working towards upping illiteracy rates in South African communities. They’ve assisted over 12,700 children in learning to read through their literacy programs.
  • READ Global is a non-profit organisation that works in rural parts of Asia, and contributes towards the building of libraries and reading centres. These centres are where thousands of villagers get the opportunity to improve their reading abilities every year.

While the number of people passing through the doors of these organisations paints a promising picture, it’s the real-life experiences that tell us how important these literacy-improving efforts really are. 

Take for example this statement by a participant of READ Global “[When I was illiterate], I felt like I was blind. I began to see the world after coming to the library.” 

But how does literacy actually improve someone’s well-being?

How literacy benefits the brain


As Joseph Adison, the English politician and writer, said, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body; reading trains and develops our brains.” 

In fact, scientists have found that if we read less it affects our intellectual development negatively

And, after doing research on the matter, Dr Barry Zuckerman, Professor of Paediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine, found that children who are exposed to books at a young age go on to do better in a wide variety of developmental measures. These include:

  • achieving higher literacy levels
  • having an improved ability to pay attention and concentrate 
  • gaining a better grasp of vocabulary. 

These benefits feed into an individual’s ability to develop skills, participate in society and secure work and an income. 

Without these achievements, it’d be much harder for communities to come together and ensure their own well-being, and contribute towards global development in a positive way. 

How to add to teaching programs worldwide


When you participate in a teaching-abroad program you’ll help cultivate a win-win situation. 

Whether you work with adults, youth or children, you will make a positive impact, and assist in improving their education. But you’ll also be able to experience a meaningful trip abroad.

Literacy programs abroad are the perfect opportunity to contribute towards improving global literacy, because they allow you to:

  • support students, while also receiving training and support from experts in the field 
  • assist others in improving their literary skills, opening doors to better educational opportunities
  • gain the practical skills and experience that universities and future employers will value.

While International Literacy Day may be celebrated just once a year, efforts to improve global literacy rates are taking place every day.

Literacy is the gateway to a better future with brighter possibilities, one word at a time.

So, in the words of a literacy leader, “Let’s commit to living in a world where every man, woman and child can write their own future.” – Forest Whitaker

Find out more about GVI’s international, award-winning volunteer-teaching programs and internships, and get ready to help others to write their own future this International Literacy Day. 

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