Queen Rania Foundation

Why should we focus on Literacy?

What is literacy?

The UNESCO defines literacy as the ability of individuals to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute content through a variety of media, for the purpose of communication and expression[1]. Simply put, literacy is the ability to read and write with understanding.

Why focus on literacy?

The focus on literacy is not intended to undermine the importance of other foundational skills, like numeracy, social emotional skills and others. For me, the focus on literacy stems out of the criticality of it, in that, literacy unlocks learning, and allows knowledge of all fields to be accessible. Whether individuals take advantage of their literacy ability or not is another issue, however, their failure to be literacy-proficient would hinder their ability to access knowledge. According to a World Bank report, the proficiency rates in reading are highly correlated with proficiency rates in other subjects[2]. For example, being able to read a maths problem fluently with no effort, allows mental space to be freed up to address the maths puzzle. Without this there is, in the jargon, 'too much cognitive load'. Therefore, the individual’s literacy levels grants access, in addition to momentum, onto other fields.

High literacy skills and education are also positively correlated with higher productivity, better earnings, higher rates of employment, improved health conditions, greater civic engagement, innovation, and higher levels of social harmony. Meaning, if literacy unlocks learning, then the absence of it, locks all of its positive impact.[3]

Worldwide statistics are promising, according to the UNESCO, around 25% of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 were considered illiterate 50 years ago, i.e. unable to read and write[4]. And today, this percentage is lowered to 9%, yet this still means that 773 million adults remain illiterate. Efforts are still very much needed to bring the illiteracy rate down.

Status of Literacy in Jordan

As per the UNESCO, the illiteracy rate for youth between the ages of 15-24 years in Jordan is less than 0.7 %[5]. In light of these figures, the question that surfaces is: how proficiently literate are that 99.3 %? Is this percentage of the population considered literate as defined by UNESCO; in the ability to understand and interpret? or are they considered literate as in they are able to decode and spell?

As welcome as the UNESCO data is, it is important to reflect on the full set of skills that make up reading proficiency in its fuller picture. The PISA 2018 assessment[6] is a great indicator here, as it measures the literacy proficiency of 15-year-olds, in their understanding, usage and engagement with text. Jordan’s ranking in the 2018 PISA results has improved by about 10 rankings from the 2015 round, and although this is a considerable improvement, Jordan still ranks 55th out of the 78 countries who participated in PISA 2018. In addition, PISA 2018 still shows that over 40% of students do not meet the OECD definition of minimum proficiency. And we have very very few students meeting at the higher performance levels that an innovation-led economy requires[7].

There is still a long way to go, and in my opinion, understanding the true extent of literacy proficiency is where further research is needed. It is not to undermine the strides of literacy achievements that happened in Jordan and worldwide, it is to shed light on the importance of literacy for its ability to pull individuals and societies up in life to thrive, and not just to decode, spell and survive.


[1] http://gaml.uis.unesco.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/12/4.6.1_07_4.6-defining-literacy.pdf

[2] https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/32553/142659.pdf?sequence=6&isAllowed=y

[3] https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/32553/142659.pdf?sequence=6&isAllowed=y

[4] https://tellmaps.com/uis/literacy/#!/tellmap/-601865091

[5] http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/jo

[6] https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA%202018%20Insights%20and%20Interpretations%20FINAL%20PDF.pdf

[7] https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA%202018%20Insights%20and%20Interpretations%20FINAL%20PDF.pdf