The holiday season is the perfect time to be thankful for all the good in our lives. For those living in the United States or other wealthy countries, most of the necessities of life are accessible to us and even many of our wants are satisfied. Some opportunities are so available that we take them for granted. Perhaps one of the greatest overlooked gifts we enjoy — one you are using right now — is the gift of literacy.
Most of the adult U.S. population is literate. To those who are both literate and have access to the Internet, nearly all of humanity’s collective wisdom is accessible. We have the opportunity to learn and explore any topic that is interesting or necessary to us. Although many of us enjoy the gift of literacy, it is important to remember that countless others around the world do not.
One in 6 adults on the planet cannot read or write. Most of these individuals live in Africa and India, and two-thirds are women. The lowest literacy rates are in Western and Central Africa, where approximately 70 percent of men and less than 50 percent of women are literate.
Many people have tried various ways of improving literacy around the world. Emphasis has been placed on building schools, donating supplies and providing funding for teachers. These efforts could not be more appropriately placed, since schools are the primary location where people learn to read and write. Recent research, however, has shed new light on some additional factors that impact the effectiveness of programs designed to improve literacy.
One of the most important steps to improving literacy is making education an individual family priority. Since family dynamics are often the best predictor of future success in life and in education, it is important to teach families about the importance of their children’s education, particularly literacy. In a recent study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University, children’s literacy in India improved when their mothers participated in adult literacy classes and training on how to enhance children’s learning at home. Helping families recognize and use the benefits of literacy and education is a necessary step in helping all become literate.
Community support is just as vital for improving literacy rates. If a school is founded with outside help, it is imperative that the school is successfully turned over to, and has support from, local community leaders. In Indonesia, a large study conducted by the World Bank and several universities indicates that increasing the legitimacy of local school committees leads to increased learning. Without community support, schools and books will do little to improve literacy rates.
Recent research from Harvard and MIT indicates that providing scholarships to girls who perform well in school boosts overall class performance. In poor regions, many children don’t attend school because they are needed to contribute to family income. Providing small grants and payment of school fees to top students helps ease the financial loss of the child’s help at home and assists families and communities as they recognize the importance of education, leading to higher literacy rates.
We all have much to be grateful for. The world has seen a steady decline in poverty over the past few decades, and more people than ever are obtaining a basic level of education and literacy. Although most of the world’s illiterate are outside the U.S., there are still those in our own communities who are in need of our help. Whether we choose to volunteer locally or donate to international literacy programs, each of us can help give one of the greatest of all gifts: the gift of literacy.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.
Richard Payne, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.