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For love of the written word

  • Published at 10:26 am September 7th, 2018
Books give us some of our best memories
Books give us some of our best memories Photo: BIGSTOCK

International Literacy Day is a time to reflect on how far we have come

Every year, we come together to celebrate and reflect on literacy and the importance of reading in our own lives, in our communities, and around the world. 

Literacy Day has great significance for me as an education professional at Save the Children -- a child-rights based organization; as an education activist in Bangladesh -- a country of writers and poets; and on a very personal level, as an avid reader. 

Literacy Day is also a highly anticipated day for educators everywhere. It provides a space to reflect on the goals yet to be met. 

Globally, 250 million children are either not in school, or are in school and not learning -- unable to read or write. In developing countries, one in four girls is out of school and 103 million youth worldwide are unable to read. 

In Bangladesh, where the primary school drop-out rate has fallen over the last few years, over 35% of children who begin primary school never finish, and education quality and student learning continue to be a challenge, particularly in high poverty areas. 

Formidable challenges remain. Specifically, the National Student Assessment 2013 (NSA) found that 25% of primary school students did not meet grade-level competencies in Bangla. With these profound needs in mind, it is important to have this day, International Literacy Day, to read and reflect on the sometimes overwhelming, but always essential, work of ensuring that every child, everyone, can read. 

Equally importantly to rising to the challenges ahead, education professionals must see this day as an opportunity to celebrate and share our achievements. Over the past decade, the global south has made impressive progress towards achieving universal primary education. 

Through commitment of governments, development partners, communities, schools, and parents, primary school net enrolment in developing countries is 91%. Likely related to improvements in access, from 2000-2015, youth (ages 15 – 24) experienced an increase in literacy from 83% to 91%. 

In Bangladesh specifically, dramatic strides have been made in improving access to basic education, especially around achieving gender parity. The primary school completion rate rose to approximately 80% in 2015. Furthermore, Bangladesh is in an exclusive club of nations which reached gender parity in primary education and more girls than boys are enrolled in secondary education. 

While the task of all children learning can seem overwhelming, the way forward and the benefits for individuals and communities are clear. The government of Bangladesh is committed as never before to building on their access to success and improving the quality of teaching and learning in classrooms and communities. 

Increased investments in teacher professional development and coaching, promoting reading at home and at school, and improving textbooks and resources are just a few examples of the recent changes. 

In lockstep with the ministry, my team at Save the Children is leading the way to improving reading by focusing programming efforts on the five Ts of reading: Teaching, time, text, tongue, and test. 

A recent report of government primary schools showed impressive progress by READ, a USAID-funded project targetting improved reading skills and a joyful culture of reading. To share one small success, students at READ government primary schools scored significantly better than their peers on higher order literacy skill tasks, including accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. 

Comprehension scores, for example, for grade two readers were more than 30% higher in READ schools than in comparison schools. Furthermore, students at READ schools were more likely to become readers with comprehension than students in comparison schools. 

Finally, students at READ schools scored significantly better on emerging literacy skill tasks (letter knowledge, most frequent words, similar beginning words, and rhyming words). 

These increases and percentages are more than just numbers. They represent meaningful change in lives of children and their families. 

I am proud to be a small part of the work Save the Children is doing, under the Ministry of Education, to support administrators, teachers, parents, and children to embrace reading. 

International Literacy Day also has special significance for me as a guest in the country of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is unique in its tradition of writers and poets, and the beauty, value, and joy in these works by local and international authors. 

I remember first arriving in Dhaka and hearing about the phenomenal Rabindranath Tagore. Authors and poets and the art they create go beyond the personal and into the public space in Bangladesh. 

The Dhaka Literary Festival brought thinkers and writers from all over the world to Dhaka. At what other event, anywhere in the world, could we hear the late Trinidadian-British Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul discuss his struggles as a writer, leaf through inspiring children’s books such as HerStories: Adventures of Supergirls from Bangladesh, and contemplate the poetry of Ben Okri as read by Tilda Swinton? 

International Literacy Day is a celebration of a culture and love of reading and the written word. In so many ways, Bangladesh celebrates International Literacy Day throughout the year. 

Finally, International Literacy Day is a special day for me on a very personal level. It’s a day to reflect on memories of the first time I read to myself, the first time I experienced the joy of escaping into another place, another world. This memory is my Literacy Day gift to myself. 

Let us reflect on our early memories of reading. Pick up a book of poetry by Jasimuddin and savour every word. And then decide how we can individually and as a collective help more children to learn to read, so they too can enjoy the escape and adventure of a good book, so they can learn to read and they can read to learn. 

Bushra Zulfiqar is Director, Education, Save the Children International.

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