ILD2017: Promoting Literacy in a Digital World

When in 2009, the British Baroness and Chair of the famous Penguin Random Publishing House, Gail Rebuck, attempting to explain the intractable problem of adult literacy, she rightly blurted: “poor levels of literacy…are bad for the economy, bad for the society and – most important- bad for those who have their life potential blighted by an inability to read”. Current world realities confirm that a nation with a few readers is far from attaining any form of development.

Promoting literacy has proven to be an effective approach to alleviating poverty and improving the well-being of a society, as well as achieving equality and fostering sustainable development. A nation with high literacy rate not only harbours citizens who can contribute to economic development, but also those who understand their rights, can hold government accountable and be out of poverty in no time.

Traditionally, literacy is the acquirement of the cognitive skills of reading, writing, and counting.  Today, it has evolved to be a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world. However, globally, about 758million adults (15% of global population) remain illiterate with women constituting two-thirds and Sub-Saharan Africa home to 26%  of  world’s  illiteracy  rate (UNESCO 2016).

In Nigeria, it is estimated that just a little above half of the adult population is literate (about 57%) whilst youth literacy rate is less than 70% (UNESCO 2016). Yet, rates vary hugely between states, regions and sex. An in-depth survey by the National Bureau of Statistics reveals that Imo and Lagos states record the highest number of English literate adults at 80.8% and 80.5% respectively, whilst Sokoto state has only 22.1% of its adult population literate in English language. Furthermore, urban literacy surpasses rural at a huge ratio of 69.4% to 38.5% whilst 65.1% of males are literate as opposed to 50.6% females (National Literacy Survey (2010). These estimates reveal that about 65million Nigerians still remain illiterate.

Although both the public, private, and non-governmental sectors as well as international organisations, have introduced several interventions to drastically reduce illiteracy rates, especially in the basic education sector, not much progress has been recorded.

Nevertheless, some notable initiatives include the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education (NMEC) Revitalising Adult and Youth Literacy Programme in partnership with UNESCO. The project has reportedly educated four million Nigerians between 2012 and 2015. Furthermore, the Oando Foundation in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Emergency Crisis Response (ECR), commenced a remarkable initiative to transition 60,000 internally displaced out-of-school children in Northern Nigeria from informal to formal/mainstream education institutions by 2018. Then, the Lafarge Africa National Literacy Competition has reached over 77, 144 primary school across all Local Government Areas in Nigeria since its launch in 2014, in partnership with the Ovie Brume Foundation. In the public sector, the Lagos adult literacy programme Eko Nke Koo (Lagos is Learning) was launched in 2016 to increase the State’s literacy level from 87 percent to 95 percent by the year 2019.

Despite all these efforts and many more, research studies continue to reveal that; illiteracy rates may not have significantly dropped as the number of out-of school children in Nigeria remain high at 10.5million (UNICEF 2014).

Reading and Literacy

Although reading is a major pillar of literacy, it has not been maximised for the promotion of literacy. A 2004 survey on Nigeria revealed that an average Nigerian reads less than one book per year and 40% adult Nigerians never read a non-fiction book from cover to cover after they finish school (Henry, 2004).  The same rate has been recorded by other survey experts in 2011. For there to be a significant improvement in Nigeria’s literacy rate, there is an urgent need for attitudinal change, towards reading at all levels, especially amongst adults. A 2017 CSR survey on Nigerian organisations revealed that most corporate organisations invested in education in 2016 howbeit with no significant impact on the education sector and literacy levels. Robust and more collaborative investments in promoting reading would yield more sustainable impact in the education sector especially through literacy levels.

The Sahara Foundation initiated the Read to me School Project in 2014 to encourage reading for knowledge and leisure, improve the vocabulary of beneficiaries and encourage individual reading through distribution of free story books to beneficiaries. Likewise, the UBA Foundation has pioneered a Read Africa initiative to reignite reading culture amongst African children. These are a few of the literacy initiatives targeted towards increasing the urge for voluntary reading in Nigeria. No doubt, many more investments are required to support government efforts in curbing illiteracy across the country especially in the Northern Region.

Literacy in a Digital World

It is a known fact that digital technologies such as phones, computers and internet have transformed the world in all sectors; the  educational  sector  is  no exception.

The definition of literacy has thus evolved from being just a cognitive skill of reading and writing to a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world. Digital technology provides for better access to information and knowledge just as access to books and information encourages reading for today’s generation. With the role technology plays in the lives of young people, it is a smart strategy to promoting literacy objectives for children and youth.  Consequently, both the public, private and nonprofit sectors working to promote literacy that can adapt digital realities for there to be significant improvement in literacy rates in the near future. However, this will require the Nigerian educational system to undergo a technological overhaul and incorporate curriculum, teaching and learning.

Progressively, certain literacy projects have incorporated new technologies in their approach. For instance, the Procter & Gamble/UNESCO-Always Literacy Empowerment Programme was designed to help over 100,000 Nigerian girls and young women acquire basic literacy skills through the use of traditional and technological-based teaching. Already over half of the target has been met, according to available public data. Similarly, the UNESCO Institute for lifelong learning’s TELA (Technology Enhanced Learning for All) project has impacted thousands of Nigerian children. The Intel Foundation’s ‘She Will Connect’ digital literacy programme has partnered NGOs across Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa to integrate digital/technology literacy training into their current gender and development programmes targeting women and girls. The Feed the Monster App by Curious Learning, which delivers open source mobile software for literacy in English, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa.

As today marks another International Literacy Day with the theme ‘Literacy in a Digital World’, the global consensus on digitizing literacy is articulated through UNESCO’s perspectives, summarized in the following highlights:

  • What kinds and levels of literacy skills are required in an increasingly digital world? How could such skills be related to a broader set of knowledge, skills and competencies required in the digital world?
  • What are the different dimensions of literacy in digital societies, for which increased attention is required?
  • What are the implications for policies, governance and financing  for literacy?
  • How do literacy  programmes  need  to  adapt  in  a  digital  world,  in  terms  of  delivery  modes, curriculum, teaching-learning methodologies, materials, teachers and facilitators, language used, as well as monitoring and evaluation?
  • What are the opportunities and challenges to make literacy programmes available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable to all?
  • What are the implications of digital technologies for enriching literate environments?
  • How can data  analytics  advance  the  monitoring of literacy  skills  acquisition?  How  can  digital technologies change the ways literacy skills are assessed, and made visible through recognition, validation and digital technologies improve monitoring and evaluation?
  • Which measures can be considered to address inequalities in literacy and to turn the ‘digital divide’ to the ‘digital opportunity’ towards more literate societies?
  • What are the different dimensions of literacy in the digital societies, for which increased attention is required?


A special editorial produced by Sustainable Convos  to mark the 2017 International Literacy Day.