The Impact of Illiteracy and the Importance of Early Intervention

“Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.” – Kate DiCamillo.

Despite the steady rise in literacy rates over the past 50 years, there are still 773 million illiterate adults around the world.

Additionally, three billion people around the world struggle with basic level reading and writing.

The reasons for this are varied; with missed early-years schooling, the impact of conflict and instability, migration pathways, and inaccessible quality education in mother-tongue and first languages among them. No matter the reason, studies revealed that those excluded from the education system at an early age often remain disadvantaged for the rest of their lives.

The Social Impact

When a child or student struggles with reading and writing, the social impacts are profound and will usually follow them into adulthood. Often, students who struggle with literacy feel ostracised from academia, or find themselves unable to fully participate in society or government. A person who cannot read and write struggles to know their rights, to vote, to find work, to pay bills and to secure housing.

They also may have low self-esteem or feel emotions such as shame, fear and powerlessness, which can often lead to isolation. Former President of the International Literacy Association Bernadette Dwyer said, “Literacy permeates all areas of life, fundamentally shaping how we learn, work, and socialise. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.”

"Literacy is essential to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, and community engagement."

The Economic Impact

As the global economy moves more towards a knowledge economy, literacy is an essential skill for individuals and states to compete in the global economy. When a high proportion of the adult population has poor literacy skills, many positions remain vacant as insufficient individuals are adequately skilled to fulfil those roles. This results in slower GDP growth in the long term.

It has also been found that people struggling with literacy are more likely to lack education and miss out on opportunities to participate fully in the workforce. Those with low literacy are more likely to be in the lowest measured wage group and lower quality jobs.

The Multi-generational Impact

Parents who are functionally illiterate often prioritise work before education, have lower expectations in regards to schooling, and the children of parents who fail to complete primary school are more likely to follow in their footsteps and do likewise. This leads to a cycle of disadvantage through generations.

On the other hand, strong literacy skills among parents will have positive impacts on their children’s lives as they are more able to help and encourage their children in their schoolwork and communicate with their teachers effectively. Research by the U.S. Department of Education found that “children who are read to at least three times a week by a family member are almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading compared to children who are read to less than three times a week.”

When we disrupt the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, children are better able to overcome the limitations of the previous generation.

Breaking the Cycle: Early Intervention

Early interventions targeting children in early childhood could be the most effective approach to increasing literacy skills in the long term. Developing literacy and language skills before formal schooling sets a child up for success in school and life.

Children with a poor foundation of literacy before entering formal schooling are more likely to struggle academically and to drop out of school later in life. This in turn increases their likelihood of facing poorer employment and social outcomes in the future.

Rather than addressing the issue of poor literacy in adults when it arises, it is better to prevent the problem and its consequences in the first place through early childhood interventions.

Reading books to your little ones at a young age and encouraging children to view reading and writing as a fun activity rather than a chore, can promote literacy skills.