We need to do better to get children reading

Are you able to read this? It seems like a simple question, but there are 750 million illiterate adults around the world who cannot. Reading skills start in school, yet 617 million children globally cannot read, even though two-thirds of them are attending school.

It is clear that we have a global learning crisis on our hands. It is more urgent than ever that we step up our efforts to address this crisis.

How bad is the problem?

In sub-Saharan Africa, almost nine out of ten children are unable to read this sentence. The other 10% of children are much more likely to be from wealthier families. Even for these children, the vast majority have only basic reading skills and much lower fluency than children in wealthier countries.

What does it feel like to read the absolute basics? Turns out, it has a massive impact on someone’s day-to-day life with each sentence they read.

This could be an everyday reality for entire generations if nothing changes.

Why does the global learning crisis matter?

Literacy is not only a right, it is also a direct pathway to better livelihoods. Literacy has a strong impact on crucial things like health, gender equality, and economic growth.

Here are some shocking facts that show the seriousness of this crisis:

  • The economic and social cost of adult illiteracy in developing countries is estimated at more than $5 billion every year.
  • More than 20% of illiterate girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married by the age of 15, compared to only 4% of literate girls.
  • In Nigeria — the most populous country in Africa — 73% of literate young women knew where to get an HIV test, compared to 36% of illiterate women.

Ultimately, literacy is key to poverty reduction. Achieving universal primary and secondary education would help lift more than 420 million people out of poverty.

How can we do better?

We cannot fix what we can’t measure, so it is critical we are able to measure learning as it’s happening in the classroom. This will allow policymakers to target resources where they are most needed. Despite tremendous progress in ensuring more comparable and consistent data in measuring literacy, there are still issues with getting this data. As a result, education influencers and world leaders are considering no longer assessing basic levels of literacy in the classroom. ONE, alongside other CSOs, is advocating for better funding of education data and for learning in the classroom to continue to be measured. Achieving both of these things will be a tremendous victory that could lead to getting more kids learning.

We must also focus on the early years—the most critical years in a child’s development to get them on track with literacy. In grade 3, children should be switching from learning to read to reading to learn. Doing so sets them up for the rest of their lives, but many children cannot even read by this age.

Finally, we must ensure that financing leads to the outcomes we want. We must be able to better track how financing can get kids reading.

We are far off track from achieving global literacy. We must do better to step up our efforts and help every child learn the skills they need to succeed.


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