The ‘Economic and Social cost of Illiteracy’ report reviewed the cost of illiteracy in emerging, developing and developed countries. It found that nearly 800 million people across the world lacked the basic reading and writing skills required to accomplish simple tasks – costing the global economy more than US$1.2 trillion in 2015.
“The issues of illiteracy and functional literacy are not often profiled as a major social issue both in Australia and around the globe,” Kay told The Educator. “Yet the economic costs and social impact of illiteracy are severe. In the past 30 years we have made gain, but clearly much more needs to be done.”
“More than one third of the world’s population struggles to read or are illiterate,” added Kay, noting that some 120 million children or young people were currently not able to attend school.
“For many people this means they can’t read the instructions on a medicine bottle, they can’t read a map [or] a recipe,” he said. “In addition, the study found that 93% of employers surveyed said low levels of language, literacy and numeracy impacted their business.
The World Literacy Foundation is a not-for-profit body dedicated to harnessing new digital technologies to “reach the unreachable” with a range of new education tools. Kay said that parts of Australia, such as Tasmania had a functional literacy rate of 40%, “meaning these people struggle to read a newspaper.”
“In Australia, funds have flowed into the education system to address the literacy issues. Yet the Programme for International Student Assessment and other key measurements highlight little or no impact from this funding,” said Kay. “Why the extra funding isn't making an impact is a big issue by itself.”
Kay argued for more resources to be directed toward children before enrolling in school in order to promote the development of reading. “School preparedness is critical if we are going to make inroads to addressing low level literacy rates,” he said. “We know that children growing up in low income backgrounds, Indigenous and/or migrant homes are the ones most likely to be affected.”
“We need to direct the bulk of resources to these children; I believe a whole community approach is the way forward,” he continued. “[We need] the involvement and engagement of parents of pre-school aged children, local community, local community groups and schools....working together.”
Richard van der Draay
High rates of illiteracy worldwide come at a huge cost, according to a new study by literacy expert Andrew Kay, founder and CEO of the World Literacy Foundation.