Alf, Ba, Ta…..
The estimated illiteracy rate as of 2008 for individuals over 15 years old in the Arab world was 70 million*. This means that approximately 1 in every 4 individuals do not have functional literacy skills, i.e. the literacy skills that enable an individual to participate in political, civil and social life. Women and girls make up more than 60% of our 70 million illiterates. The magnitude of this gender disparity is also observed globally in fact it is slightly higher at the global level.
The percentage of illiterates in the Arab world varies quite dramatically in different countries. It reaches up to 60% in 6 countries: Iraq, Mauritania, Egypt, Sudan, Morroco and Yemen. The illiteracy rate ranges from 20-39% in the following countries: Libya, K.S.A., U.A.E., Syria, Oman, Tunisia, Algeria, Djibouti. In the third bracket, there is 10-19% illiteracy in the following countries: Palestine, Jordan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Qatar.
Some Arab states are working towards halting their increasing illiteracy rates. Many other states are at least on record stating their commitment to reducing illiteracy. Achieving this goal will involve much more than finding ways to help individuals read and write because literacy is not simply about Alf, Ba, Ta. In fact, the very concept, what it means to be “literate” and “illiterate”, is undergoing a radical reconceptualization1 . Today we are thinking about multiple literacies (academic literacy, number literacy, technological literacy, business literacy, oral literacy) and shifting away from the idea that literacy is an acquired skill. We are moving towards the idea that literacy is a social practice. This means that to improve literacy we need to facilitate illiterates’ engagement in literacy practices rather than “teach” them how to read and write.
Other scholars are questioning the view that literacy, the new found magic bullet for human and economic development, will inevitably enhance cognitive skills, improve economic prospects and make people better citizens and healthier. For some, alleviating the socio-economic conditions that perpetuate illiteracy are what governments should be working on rather than teaching “literacy”. There is some merit to this view because there is a robust statistical association between poverty, hunger and under nourishment, women’s health and gender inequality and group level illiteracy rates in the Arab world. In addition to the social contexts, there are more individualistic reasons for illiteracy. For a subgroup of illiterates, learning difficulties, cognitive limitations, brain damage and significant motor and/or sensory problems may account for their failure to learn to read.
To provide a concrete sense of the board categories of regional initiatives to bring about conducive conditions for the alleviation of illiteracy consider the following: family education programs, establishing legal frameworks for social justice issues related to literacy, making community resources accessible to learners, psycho-social educational programs for women, coordinating literacy programs objectives with market demands, building an infrastructure for non-traditional teaching, using technology to broadcast literacy lessons and raise awareness; build research infrastructure to study illiteracy and to assess the effectiveness of existing programs; the establishment of an educational equivalence system between literacy programs and mainstream education, establish financial partnerships between the government and the private sector to fund programs, support for post literacy programs and there is so much more to be added.
Given that literacy involves acquiring the skill of reading and writing but also much more, as we can see from the variegated initiatives above, my question is what perspective can brain scientists contribute? I think that the overarching contribution will involve making the thought skills and behaviors of illiterates clear to stakeholders. This is an important contribution because societal level initiatives come to have a life of their own and can very easily over run or abstract out the individuals they purport to serve. With the current knowledge, brain science’s contributions can involve answers to the following two questions:1) is the illiterate brain different than the literate brain? 2) given our current understanding of the basic brain mechanisms that subserve literacy, how can we help adult illiterates learn more effectively? These questions will be taken up in the next two articles.
1 The New Literacy Studies perspective offers broader conceptualizations of literacy beyond the ability to read and write. The main proponents are Brain Street and James Gee.