Why do we need International Literacy Day?

Updated Oct 19, 2020
“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories.” ― Kofi Annan

International Literacy Day is September 8. For more than five decades, it’s been a day to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies.

Education is a human right, but one that’s impossible to embrace without literacy. That means millions of people around the world are still left in the dark.

Despite a steady rise in literacy rates over the past 50 years:
  • There are still 750 million illiterate adults around the world, most of whom are women.
  • More than one-half of the world’s children and adolescents are not being educated.
Even when there’s a school nearby, children can’t succeed without the right materials. Often, one textbook is shared between a classroom of students.

World Vision is a leading organization in providing education materials around the world. This piece will tell you more about our work and how you can get involved.

Celebrate International Literacy Day with books for children in developing countries.

Why does literacy matter?

In Bangladesh, a mother and her two children hunch over a writing assignment, while a teacher points to something on the page.
A mother and her two children (left) are learning to read and write together, at this World Vision learning centre in northern Bangladesh. Photo: Golam Ehsanul Habib​

“Show me a family of readers, and I will show you the people who move the world.” – Napoléon Bonaparte

The importance of literacy can’t be underestimated. Being able to read and write unlocks doors of learning and opportunity for people everywhere.
  • Literacy for children means greater success in school. Literate kids have more options when it’s time to enter the workforce, and better chances of advancement.
  • Literacy for girls gives them more control over their futures – including when, whether and whom they marry. Literate girls can seek and read information about their rights, their bodies, their options.
  • Literacy for mothers is closely related to child health and survival. Literate women can earn more, understand more about good nutrition for their children, and access information about things like family planning.
  • Literacy for parents means better, higher-paying jobs, so they can do more for their children. Literate parents are more likely to ensure their own kids are educated.

The story of International Literacy Day
It happened in 1966, when UNESCO proclaimed that every September 8 from that point forward would be International Literacy Day. The first celebration took place a year later, on September 8, 1967.

But the idea was born a year earlier, at a conference in Tehran, Iran. World leaders had gathered to discuss the urgent need to help more people achieve basic literacy.

Literacy need
Although different countries had been trying to promote literacy on their own, it was clear this wasn’t the answer. The problem of illiteracy was worldwide in scope. International action was needed. At that time, 44 per cent of the world’s adults were illiterate.

Literacy progress
Since that first International Literacy Day, the world has made great strides in helping people learn to read and write. Today, only 14 per cent of the world’s adults can’t read and write.

Literacy evolution
Since 1967, the concept of literacy has evolved from basic reading, writing and numeracy skills. We now include broader ideas such as ‘functional literacy’. There is a global demand for skilled labour. How do we empower people with the kinds of literacy needed for these jobs?

Literacy Day latest
Today, International Literacy Day is a time to celebrate progress around the world – and identify areas of continuing need.

Literacy day themes are chosen to highlight the role literacy plays in human wellbeing and advancement. International Literacy Day 2020 will focus on ‘Literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond’.

Case study: Literacy transforms lives in India

An adolescent girl in India gazes intently at the chalkboard on which she is writing. The board is propped up outside, in a rural setting.Saiba is among the 4,000 children embracing literacy at one of World Vision’s learning centres in Fatehpur, India. Photo: Jim Kasom

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." — Frederick Douglass

International Literacy Day is an opportunity for people to recognize the need for literacy and learn more about the world’s needs.

It’s also a chance to celebrate progress made by children like Saiba, in India.

“She couldn’t read a sentence when she first came to class,” says the teacher of the 11-year-old girl. But Saiba has worked hard at this remedial learning centre in Fatehpur district. She’s moved to head of her class and is even helping teach other children!

An adolescent girl in India smiles broadly while leading a class of younger students. She is outside in a rural setting, with a chalkboard behind her.
Saiba is among the 4,000 children embracing literacy at one of World Vision’s learning centres in Fatehpur, India. She is even helping lead classes. Photo: Jim Kasom

She had been destined for manual labour and possibly early marriage. But Saiba now has an array of other options. Her gift for teaching others is easy to see.

Saiba is growing up in region of India that’s largely illiterate. Most parents are farmers who neither read nor write. It was hard to understand the difference literacy could make for their children.

Most kids started primary school. But dropout rates increased 600 per cent by the end of middle school. Once a child fell behind, it was often impossible to catch up. No one at home could help.

World Vision has set up a network of literacy centres to welcome and teach the children. With the help of Canadian donors:
  • 4,016 children are taking remedial classes in
  • 225 remedial education centres in
  • 31 villages across Fatehpur district.

A group of young children bend intently over their writing. They are sitting on a blanket outdoors in rural India.
More than 4,000 children are embracing literacy at one of these World Vision learning centres in India. Photo: Jim Kasom

“If the parents don’t send the children to class, I visit them and ask them to send their children,” says Saiba’s teacher. She explains to parents how literacy can transform life. It can start with something as simple as reading about current crop prices in the local newspaper. Or doing calculations at market, so farmers receive their fair pay.

The importance of literacy in this community is growing each year. Thousands of children now have more say in writing their futures. Many parents are reading things differently, too.

“Now, Saiba always comes first in her class,” says the girl’s mother with pride.

How World Vision builds literacy

An adolescent girl in a headscarf concentrates on what the teacher is saying. She has a pencil in her right hand and a notebook in front of her.With the support of World Vision, refugee children like Shaima can maintain their literacy and keep learning. Shaima attends classes in a camp in Jordan, where she fled with her family. Photo: Alexander Whittle

For World Vision, International Literacy Day is a chance to reflect on the literacy programs we offer year-round. How much change are they making? What is working well? Where can we improve?

We have seen firsthand the importance of literacy for children in need – no matter where they live. Even amidst conflict, food crisis and economic disaster, literacy can open doors to the future that would otherwise be locked tight.

We work hard to help children and families learn to read, write and do math. We do it through:
  • Child sponsorship literacy. When we partner with communities and schools, we make reading camps available to children in that community. Not just children who are sponsored. We train teachers and offer early education classes for young children. And we teach parents how to promote literacy at home, with things like games and ‘reading corners’.
  • Emergency recovery literacy. Rebuilding schools is a priority for us, when earthquakes and typhoons knock them flat. We establish child-friendly spaces in the immediate aftermath, so children can keep up with their literacy learning. And we empower community members to support children through literacy, even in the midst of chaos.
  • Literacy in fragile regions. There’s a stark difference between boosting literacy in a country at peace – and teaching it in a war zone. But we know it’s critical to keep kids learning, especially girls. Girls with no education are three times more likely to marry before 18 than those who finish high school. World Vision helps in ways like these:
    • We supply learning materials and help build infrastructure like schools and latrines.
    • We equip and pay teachers in some countries, when governments are unwilling or unable to do so. War, natural disasters and economic crises can be reasons for the breakdown.
    • We raise awareness in families about girls’ rights and the importance of literacy and education.
    • We build teachers’ capacity to support and teach children who have experienced trauma.
  • Advocating with governments. We campaign passionately for the chance for education for every child – no matter where they live. We campaign with the Canadian government, children’s own governments and world bodies like the United Nations. We seek programs and policies which prioritize literacy and education for tomorrow – not just survival today.
You can leave a legacy of literacy for children in developing countries. Donate textbooks and schoolbooks to children who may not otherwise have anything to read with.

More stories for you

Girls’ education: Facts and how to help For all children, but especially for girls, education provides stability for today and opportunities for tomorrow. Learn more about girls' education & how to help.
How to build a reading corner Making a reading corner in your home or classroom is as easy as A, B, C!
5 ways to donate school supplies for kids

September marks the return to school for millions of children around the world. For some kids, the transition back into the classroom is easier because they have the supplies (things like books, notebooks, pencils, and backpacks) they need to enter the school year with confidence.