Creativity, communication and collaboration are the keys to seeing literacy levels improve across the board. To do that, schools will need to increase internal collaboration around specific literacy initiatives.



Literacy, along with numeracy, creativity, critical thinking and communication skills are vital aspects of education and must be continuously fostered, facilitated and treated as core elements of everyone’s education. We have the chance as we celebrate International Literacy Day to examine what the broader working meaning of literacy is in greater detail.

The definition of literacy can take a variety of forms, depending on the source. Various dictionaries define it differently, but they tend not to fully encompass how reading and writing skills are required across the wide range of languages, geographies and demographics. For that, we need to expand our understanding of ‘literacy’ as a way of living and accessing the world around us. This is where things potentially get complicated. 

Thankfully, UNESCO has developed an excellent resource to help us gain a better, more holistic understanding of literacy. 

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts,” it says. 

“Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

UNESCO further unpack this definition with literacy’s three key features: it is about the uses people make of it as a means of communication and expression, through a variety of media; it is plural, being practised in particular contexts for particular purposes and using specific languages; it involves a continuum of learning, measured at different proficiency levels 

In short, literacy is more complex than someone’s ability to simply read and write. These are fundamental aspects of it, but they don’t tell the complete story. 

Consider Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory, which describes students’ literacy pertaining to results in standardised tests for reading and writing. Low scores in these tests don’t necessarily mean the students are not literate, or even have low levels of literacy. What it does mean is that they’re still developing their reading and writing proficiencies. Yes, these scores and trends need to be addressed and have action taken to improve them, but we must also recognize that they represent a narrow snapshot of the overall capabilities of the students. 


What are the challenges to literacy in 2020?

The International Literacy Association (ILA) has released the findings of their 2020 survey, comprising reports from 1,443 respondents across 65 countries. 56% of respondents were teachers, with 34% being literacy specialists. 

It provides a great insight into the challenges teachers and students are facing when it comes to reading and writing proficiency. We might need to increase dialogue around, and problem-solving for how we can further emphasise the positive culture of extended reading, as one issue the findings raised is a general lack of time to focus on independent reading. 


What can we do to improve overall literacy?

The ILA report (and the repeated emphasis on reading and writing skills when defining all that literacy represents) makes it clear that a shift in educational culture is likely required to raise literacy levels on a holistic level. 

Simply put, teachers need more support. We can’t assume they all come into the job as experts on literacy, as it’s a field of expertise demanding an increase in support and training for not only prospective teachers, but current ones. 

A strict focus on literacy development should underpin all areas of a school’s curricula, rather than simply be the sole domain of English. For that, we should focus on collaborative emphasis on reading, writing and the application of critical thinking skills development. 


Standardised testing is not the cure-all

Let’s temper our obsession with standardised test results being means by which we judge the whole child, not to mention our region, district or country. The decrease in written literacy means we need to encompass that information in the wider context of educational data, such as any other factors potentially being at play, or if modern communication’s evolution has an impact on our view of literacy. 

Sometimes, it is the methodology that doesn’t fit the student, not the other way around. The world’s rapid rate of change means students need a broader range of skills so they can better adapt than we seem to have anticipated. 

We need to adapt our approach as well, as in a rapidly changing world, one size no longer necessarily fits all.



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