Today is International Literacy Day and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) says it will be celebrated across the world on the theme, ‘Literacy in a digital world’. At UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, a two-day global event is being held to look at what kind of literacy skills people need to navigate increasingly digitally-mediated societies and to explore effective literacy policies and programmes that can leverage the opportunities the digital world provides.
According to UNESCO at a record speed, digital technologies are fundamentally changing the way people live, work, learn and socialise. Digital technologies are giving new possibilities to people to improve various areas of their lives including access to information, knowledge management, networking, social services, industrial production and mode of work. However, those who lack access to digital technologies and the knowledge, skills and competencies required to navigate them, can end up marginalised in increasingly digitally-driven societies, UNESCO warns, saying literacy is one such essential skill.
Just as knowledge, skills and competencies evolve in the digital world, so does what it means to be literate. To close the literacy skills gap and reduce inequalities, this year’s International Literacy Day will highlight the challenges and opportunities in promoting literacy in the digital world, a world where, despite progress, at least 750 million adults and 264 million out-of-school children still lack basic literacy skills, UNESCO says.
The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) says that of the 750 million adults who are illiterate, most are women. This is a stark reminder of the work ahead to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially, Target 4.6 to ensure that all youth and most adults achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030.
In Sri Lanka also we need to see what we have to do to promote literacy in a digital world. a command of the English language is necessary to make maximum use of this, especially the search engines which are like smart text books for subjects ranging from mathematics to medicine. After 1956, when the English language was withdrawn as a medium of education, our standards today have dropped to low levels. The situation became worse with the introduction of television in 1978. It is widely accepted that the best way to improve our knowledge of English is by reading not only classics by Shakespeare but even detective fiction novels where the substance may not be deep but the language is powerful. Scholars say it is by reading that we improve our English knowledge in terms of spelling, grammar, syntax and other important aspects of writing skills. After 1956, surveys show that the reading habit began to drop and declined further when television came because most young people preferred to watch TV rather than read books in their spare time.
With the advent of the hi-tech era most young people have now switched from television to smart phones and tabs with high resolution pictures. As a result there are millions of young people who may be able to speak fairly good English and sometimes with an accent also. But they are unable to link the operative noun with the verb even in a simple sentence. Excessive use of American-made computer spell checkers has also led to the folly where many people use the word roll for role or site for sight or foul for fowl implying that we need to eat foul curry.
The English medium of education has now been reintroduced but that may not be enough and Sri Lanka needs to find ways of promoting the reading habit especially among the young people. When they improve their knowledge of English it will pave the way for them to reach higher standards of literacy in this modern world and also grow in their knowledge and wisdom of what is evolving worldwide. To encourage children to get back to the habit of reading English books, whether they be printed or e-books the key role needs to be played by parents and teachers while the government could help by taking measures to reduce the prices of books.