"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Monday, February 17, 2014

Assessment of the "Literacy Rate": Who Gets to Decide, Anyway?

This week's readings on "America's Perfect Storm" and "National Literacy Campaigns" have really brought a lot of questions to mind.  I have always been more than a little bit skeptical about measuring literacy rates worldwide.  In an effort to clear up some of my confusion, I looked up the definition of "literacy rate" on the World Bank's website.  According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, literacy rate is the "percentage of the population age 15 and above who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.  Generally, 'literacy' also encompasses 'numeracy', the ability to make simple arithmetic calculations"  (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS

For me, there are a number of issues with this definition.   For one thing, does the literacy rate really reflect the ability of a nation's population to participate in a shared discourse?  Who determines if a sentence is relevant to a learner's everyday life?  And furthermore, is the learner's everyday life even considered to be a part of the dominant discourse?  According to Arnove and Graff's article "National Literacy Campaigns," large-scale efforts to provide literacy have been more closely related to the interests of establishing a moral or political consensus or nation-state building.  As part of literacy campaigns, students may have been encouraged to memorize principles that they don't fully comprehend and that maybe have nothing to do with their everyday lives.  Despite the discrete skills that they possess to manipulate text, they STILL may be marginalized and unable to participate in their nation's larger discourse.  In that sense, they may still be seen as illiterate by their society.  Furthermore, is it fair to compare literacy rates among different nations when literacy might mean different things for each population?  Since literacy is a very subjective term, doesn't it render literacy rate statistics almost meaningless?   To me it doesn't seem that a literacy rate is something that can be so easily quantified, especially on a global scale.


  1. I too struggle with the theory behind literacy rates. And I only think it is fair to compare literacy rates of different nation if the measurement s are equal. Most like UNESCO provided the very limited definition of Literacy to allow for measureable result. UNESCO’s definition of literacy is only adequate for the analysis UNESCO performed. As you have stated using their definition outside of the study doesn’t make sense and seems one sided.

    This is another example of where the definition of literacy is heavily dependent upon context. I hope this helps

    Great reflection.

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  3. Rachel, I would like to believe that those who develop, fund, and implement these global literacy assessments/surveys intend them to benefit all segments of a nation’s population. I recall reading a statement by Irwin Kirsch, in his report “The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS): Understanding What Was Measured” as saying “…the primary reason for developing and conducting this large-scale international assessment is to provide empirically grounded interpretations upon which to inform policy decisions.” http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-01-25-Kirsch.pdf

    Nevertheless, the questions you raised are a good reminder that the current portfolio of global literacy assessments can be improved. For example, viewing literacy from the lens of a “critical literacy” approach might enables us to better respond to the issues/concerns raised by your questions by an “…analysis that seeks to uncover the social interests at work, to ascertain what is at stake in textual and social practices. Who benefits? Who is disadvantaged?” (Janks, 2010, p 12).

    Through the lens of “critical literacy,” the policy makers, funders, and developers of literacy assessment might improve the design of their assessments to enhance their accuracy. After all, the goal of these assessment is to enable the nation’s leadership to prescribe improvements or interventions that will better enable members of the population to acquire the necessary skills and literacies to move up the social-economic ladder, raise their standard of living, and ultimately “make the world a fairer place.” (Janks, 2010, p 19).


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.