International Literacy Day is commemorated on September 8th of each year and draws attention to the importance of literacy and its direct relationship to human rights. While every person has the right to learn to read and write, UNESCO reports 773 million adults and young people globally are still lacking basic literacy. A combination of factors, including political unrest, mass migration, and the persistence of class and gender discrimination in many nations around the world, contribute to this large number. Given these pressing concerns, it is timely that UNESCO has declared the theme of this year’s International Literacy Day as literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, with a focus on the role that educators play in “changing pedagogies”.
The pandemic has magnified existing challenges associated with literacy education. Globally, the direct impact on schooling and lifelong learning opportunities for youth and adults with no or low literacy levels has been significant, particularly in Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities. According to UNESCO, “during Covid-19, in many countries, adult literacy programmes were absent in the initial education response plans, so the majority of adult literacy programmes that did exist were suspended”. Many adults worldwide, particularly BIPOC, lost access to their education. Resources for teaching were reduced or redirected from targeted and localized programs to mainstream organizations. The training of teachers and volunteers to teach literacy was also cut in many countries. Those at the margins of society – including racialized groups and individuals, families with low-income, and geographically isolated communities – were directly impacted.
The inequities exposed by the pandemic were equally problematic here in the Fraser Valley. Children with literate parents/guardians and with regular access to computers and the internet had a greater ability to navigate the messaging about procedures for transitioning to remote learning and for safety protocols. In the early stages of the educational response to the pandemic in BC, much of the communication was in English only, making it difficult for families for whom English is an additional language to navigate the multitude of online platforms and tools. The gap between those who could access technology and, by extension, an education, and those who could not, grew in households where the parents/guardians of school-aged children lacked or had low levels of literacy.
As an educator, the implications of this reality are deeply concerning. It is more than just access that is the issue. Although the technological barriers persist for many, I reflect on the ‘hidden’ impact on self-confidence, sense of personal agency, and membership in communities. I think about the Syrian refugee families in the Fraser Valley who rely on literacy education to rebuild their lives and how so many of them, in the early stages at least, rely on various community services – including schools – to support them; how the uncertainty brought on by this pandemic might reawaken fears and/or past trauma. I think about the migrant farm workers who require literacy skills to advocate for their rights. Where and how are they receiving their education when many programs by volunteers are suspended or terminated?
The quality of programming is also a concern when resources are diminished or diverted to other, typically more economically stable, groups. In programs that are still available, the pedagogy itself can be problematic. Effective interactive literacy programs become ‘packaged’ into more rote forms of instruction in order to be delivered virtually. This may be due to inadequate materials, poor working conditions, and limited resources in programs that are, in many ways, structurally problematic to begin with. Against the backdrop of these challenges, the question of how to reframe literacy education is paramount, and our role as a community of UFV educators even more crucial.
It is worth mention that the global literacy rate is approximately 85%. Globally, children under the age of 12 have been the fastest growing demographic in terms of literacy development. While these advances in literacy are noted, becoming literate does not necessarily equate to economic parity, community membership, or democratization of the society. Indeed, some of the most literate societies continue to perpetuate atrocities on humanity; becoming literate does not guarantee peace, acceptance, or equity. We need not look far to see this.
As educators, we know that literacy comes in many forms – scientific literacy, arts-based literacy, and digital literacy to name just a few. What changes in teaching and learning might we consider? One approach is to create learner-centered pedagogies and use diversity-focused resources that reflect the identities of students in literacy programs – a culturally relevant approach. Literacy education that incorporates storytelling to promote fluency and strengthen self-understanding can be powerful. A form of ‘critical’ literacy education is useful in exposing systemic and societal issues affecting students; they may be inspired to challenge the inequities that they are learning about. Teaching literacy can also be grounded in experiential learning where students build competencies in even the most basic skills for survival.
Literacy pedagogies with a strong focus on social justice and inclusion can potentially lead to positive outcomes with far-reaching effect. Given that one of UFV’s goals is to promote global and local knowledge, citizenship and connection, as a university community, we play an important role in responding to the challenge to “change pedagogies”. On this International Literacy Day, we can look carefully, thoughtfully, and with intention at our own pedagogies to promote literacy in our students and ask: Are our learners’ needs being met? Are they learning important knowledge? Are they developing language skills that will develop their voice and agency? Does their learning include resources that reflect the diversity of society? Do the topics we examine connect with who they are and foster understanding about their complex, intersectional identities? Is experiential education a component of their literacy development? As a community of educators, we have an important call to action: to ensure we use our voices to advocate for literacy programs to be prioritized as we move to the resilience building phases post-COVID; and to ensure these programs are high quality, equity-driven, and responsive. Then, I think, we truly have something to celebrate on this day.
Dr. Awneet Sivia, Associate Professor
UFV Teacher Education