Celebrate International Literacy Day on 8th September

Literacy : the ability to read and write. From Latin litteratus ‘someone who is able to write’, educated, cultured.

Illustration from David and the Black Corsair by Martyn Hobbs.

Illustration from David and the Black Corsair. Level 2 reader, written by Martyn Hobbs and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini.

What do we teach when we want to improve literacy skills?

When we teach English, our main goal is to help our students become better language users. We want them to be good communicators and also become ‘literate’ in English. Language, either our first or second language, is best practised in context. We often find ourselves experiencing a second language as a set of grammar rules and vocabulary lists. Sometimes we use texts only to analyze them  for grammatical rules, and most texts in course books are highly functional, focussing on reading strategies. The comprehension and discussion activities in text books take us a step closer to good literacy skills. At higher levels literacy also involves inferred meaning and making links to other knowledge areas, which is not the same as being a fluent reader. 

We could say that developing literacy skills means helping our students with reading comprehension and creative writing  skills. It’s not enough for language learners to read, they need to make meaning as they read, and then they need to be able to recycle new language units in their own speech and writing. An easy and successful way of putting language in context is providing meaningful and encouraging texts.  We need to make sure that our students develop good comprehension and writing skills by giving them time to reflect on what they have read. Why read a text if you do not want to talk, think or write about it?

Let’s see how UNESCO interprets literacy to understand a different aspect of the term.

‘Literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individuals, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world.’ (Source: UNESCO Education website)

It’s important to discuss literacy in the world with our students. They have probably heard many times that they are fortunate, even privileged to be able to go to school. On International Literacy Day dedicate some time to enjoyable and fun literacy activities as well as conversations about the importance of literacy.

Visit the International Literacy Day webpage to learn more about the events and theme – Literacy and Sustainable Development – of this year’s day. ‘The Day will be “an opportunity to remember a simple truth: literacy not only changes lives, it saves them,” explains the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, in her message for the Day.’ (Source: UNESCO Education International Literacy Day)

What can you do on International Literacy Day?

1 Dedicate even more time to reading, discussing reading and writing. Have a full lesson dedicated to reading for fun.

Ask your students to bring their favourite English book to school, the one that they loved as a child or the one they love reading now. Tell them that they will have time to read it in class. You can then have a talk session when everyone summarizes their book in a few sentences (you can make it more fun if you put a limit on the number of sentences they can say).

2 Share your favourite children’s or young adult book with your students. 

3 Read something together: try shared reading.

4 Browse the UNESCO Institute for Statistics database.

Check your country’s profile and find out more about other countries.

5 Visit the website of the International Reading Association and find out about their ‘Lift Off to Literacy’, their joint programme with NASA.

Inspired by the programme, sign up for the ‘I commit to 60 seconds for 60 days’ initiative and dedicate more time to literacy activities in your classroom.

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