ERIC Identifier: ED321620
Publication Date: 1990-08-00
Author: Thar, Robert
Source: Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse on Literacy Education for
Limited-English-Proficient Adults Washington DC.
International Literacy Year. ERIC Digest.
More than 40 years ago, the United Nations formulated the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration explicitly stated that every
individual has the right to an education. At that time, it was projected
that 100 percent worldwide literacy would be achieved by the year 2000.
However, in 1985, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO) estimated that there were 889 million illiterate
people worldwide, two thirds of whom were women. Though the percentage
of those classified as illiterate has declined (32 percent in 1970 as compared
with 25 percent projected in 1990), the absolute number continues to grow
due to the rapid increase in world population (UNESCO, 1988).
With the goal of achieving 100 percent world literacy by the year 2000
imminent, the United Nations General Assembly met in December 1987 and
proclaimed 1990 to be International Literacy Year. This proclamation was
linked to "a formulation of a Plan of Action to assist Member States in
all regions of the world to eradicate illiteracy by the end of the century"
(UNESCO, 1990, p. 1). UNESCO was invited to assume the role of lead agency
in this event.
WHAT ARE THE GOALS FOR INTERNATIONAL LITERACY YEAR?
The following have been outlined by UNESCO as the goals for International
- To promote better understanding internationally of the problems of
- To help strengthen and revitalize existing primary education programs;
- To encourage new programs to reach adult illiterates, especially women;
- To promote the struggle against reverting to previous levels of illiteracy.
HOW WILL THESE GOALS BE REALIZED?
UNESCO suggests the following five objectives for a successful literacy
drive to accomplish the above goals. Efforts to achieve these objectives
will continue through the end of this decade (UNESCO, 1988, p. 8).
"Encourage governments to actively promote literacy by maintaining accurate
literacy figures, accepting input from nongovernmental organizations and
interested groups in formulating policy, organizing volunteers on a national
level, meeting the needs of special populations, and evaluating literacy
programs to determine their effectiveness.
"Increase public awareness of literacy needs through media, literacy
awards, literacy ambassadors (public figures, artists, writers and sports
figures), theater programs, museum displays, and murals that portray literacy
"Increase popular participation in literacy efforts by creating partnerships
between nongovernmental organizations and other interested groups such
as the business community, book publishers, unions, and academic institutions.
Financial participation by individuals could take the form of 'voluntary
"Expand cooperation and solidarity among nations by promoting dialogue
and cooperative projects between developing and industrialized countries.
For example, industrialized countries might contribute literacy-related
technology such as mimeograph machines, books, and eyeglasses free of charge
to literacy organizations in developing countries.
"Increase cooperation within the United Nations system and more generally
among all intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations in the struggle
HOW ARE UNESCO'S OBJECTIVES BEING ACHIEVED?
There are a number of major international efforts to promote literacy,
largely through the International Task Force on Literacy, a coalition of
over 35 international nongovernmental organizations involved in adult education
and literacy. Two offices, one in Toronto, Canada, and one in New Delhi,
India, coordinate regional planning; lend assistance to the launching of
local, national, and international literacy projects; and coordinate literacy
promotion and activities throughout this decade.
In March 1990, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United
Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), UNESCO, and the World Bank sponsored
the World Conference on Education for All, which was held in Thailand.
The conference was the first such world meeting to bring together literacy
providers and educators from such diverse sectors as government delegations,
nongovernmental agencies, and financing organizations around the world.
The conference was unique in that it emphasized dialogue and discussion
of policies among the delegates rather than lectures or formal papers.
These issues were focused on during the conference:
"The need to teach in the mother tongue in order to accelerate the progress
of education and reduce its costs."
"The status of religious languages (such as classical Arabic), which
must not be treated as second languages, but rather recognized for their
special role in embodying culture and values."
"The success of bilingual programs that have demonstrated that initial
training in the mother tongue may result in better acquisition of national
or international languages (Shirley Brice Heath, personal communication,
The 42nd meeting of the International Conference on Education was held
in Geneva, Switzerland, in September 1990, to review national literacy
and educational plans for United Nations Member States. The purpose of
this conference was to follow up on the efforts of Member States to implement
their national plans of action for literacy and education for all.
A major global project of the International Task Force on Literacy for
International Literacy Year is the "Book Voyage." This project gathers
and publishes testimonies of people who are newly literate. These testimonies
will be passed from literacy center to literacy center throughout the world
and then compiled into a volume to be published late in 1991. (See Further
Information to obtain this document.)
In Australia, there is an effort to establish Literacy Action Coalitions.
These local advocate groups promote literacy awareness, help lift the stigma
attached to people with reading and writing difficulties, and expand the
number of literacy programs available. There is also a national referral
service to distribute literacy information (ALIO, 1990).
Japan's largest newspaper, Yomiuri, has set a goal of raising one yen
for every illiterate person in the Asia and Pacific region (about $5 million
U.S.), which will be disbursed for education programs (UNESCO, 1989).
There are International Literacy Year efforts in the United States as
well. According to U.S. Senate Report 101-196, inadequate literacy costs
the United States more than $200 billion annually in lost productivity,
crime, accidents, employee errors, and extra training programs. The U.S.
Congress has recently approved two bills that address illiteracy. The National
Literacy Act of 1990 and The Adult Literacy and Employability Act of 1990
"Unify the efforts of existing literacy programs;
"Establish a national structure to coordinate literacy programs and
disseminate literacy-related information;
"Enhance Federal resources for new literacy programs and methods to
reach the estimated 19-23 million persons presently not being served by
"Expand public-private literacy partnerships."
UNESCO will publish a study this year entitled "Primary Education and
Economic Recession." This study argues that unless an all-out effort is
made to boost the quality of primary schooling and make it accessible to
all children, and give education renewed financial priority, the fight
against illiteracy will not be won. Education spending has actually declined
over the last decade in half of the world's developing countries, and there
are no signs of reversing this trend in the future. Unless policy makers
put literacy and education higher on their national agendas, adult literacy
rates, especially in the developing countries, will continue to worsen.
Illiteracy among women will most likely continue to be a sensitive and
challenging issue, particularly in Arab countries.
A number of conferences are being held in the United States for International
Literacy Year. Some of these are listed below:
- International Literacy Day September 10: The Library of Congress and
the International Reading Association will co-sponsor a symposium highlighting
the events of International Literacy Year and the Year of the Young Reader.
Contact International Reading Association, 800 Barksdale Road, P.O. Box
131, Syracuse, New York 13210.
- World Literacy in the Year 2000: Research and Policy Dimensions October
4 - 7: The Literacy Research Center, University of Pennsylvania will sponsor
this invitation-only conference. Contact Daniel A. Wagner, Literacy Research
Center, Graduate School Of Education, 3700 Walnut Street, Philadelphia,
- Literacy - Foundation for Development October 9 - 30: International
Monetary Fund Visitors Center, Washington D.C. Contact Robert Thar, Summer
Institute of Linguistics, 1118 22nd Street N.W., Washington DC 20037.
- The National Conference on Literacy. December 3: United Nations, New
York. Contact Jim Muldoon, United Nations Association of the U.S.A., 485
Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017-6104.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
For the official newsletter of the International Literacy Year, available
free of charge, write to:
International Task Force on Literacy
720 Bathurst Street, Suite 500
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 2R4
To obtain more information about the Book Voyage write to:
Laubach Literacy International
1320 Jamesville Avenue
P.O. Box 131
Syracuse, NY 13210
Adult Literacy Information Office. (1990, May). ALIO update No. 16.
UNESCO. (1990). 1990: International Literacy Year (Report No. ED/ILY/88.10).
UNESCO Standing Committee. Paris: International Literacy Year Secretariat.
UNESCO. (1989, May). Yomiuri campaign target: One yen per illiterate.
The Challenge: International Literacy Year News, p. 9.
UNESCO. (1988, July). A practical guide: International Literacy Year.
UNESCO Standing Committee. Paris: International Literacy Year Secretariat.
U.S. Senate Report 101-196, The National Literacy Act of 1989.