Promoting literacy for a world in transition | Sunday Observer
International Literacy Day on September 8

Promoting literacy for a world in transition

3 September, 2023

Reading is one of the first skills that we pick up. It is also the one skill we find indispensable throughout life. In fact, it would be very difficult to live if you were illiterate, even if you can speak a language.

In today’s world, living without being able to read would be unimaginable, but around 800 million children and adults around the world cannot read or write their own language(s), according to UNESCO.

With the exception of a few native or tribal languages that have no known script, all other languages have an alphabet which can be combined into words to form sentences. Thus the disability to read – illiteracy – is akin to a disability. There are three types of skills we pick up in our formative years – alphabetic literacy, numeracy (having Arabic numeral skills) and the ability to tell the time on an analogue clock.

Literacy is traditionally defined in dictionaries as the ability to read and write. In the modern world, this is one way of interpreting literacy. One more broad interpretation sees literacy as knowledge and competence in a specific area. The concept of literacy has evolved in meaning. The meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge, solve mathematical problems and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture.

UNESCO experts have defined literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”.

According to them, literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.

Reading enriches our knowledge – and our lives. We have to read books for the purpose of education, but it would be a dull world if that was the only task for books. Hence, we read for pleasure and personal enrichment. We can read books, magazines and newspapers, which all help us to learn more about the world.

In this context, the printing press is easily the second most important invention of humankind after the wheel. It gave publishers the ability to print thousands of copies at once and popularise books among the common masses. Later, the invention of the inexpensive paperback brought books even closer to the vast majority of people.

The book is the best medium for transporting us to another world. Millions of books are published in hundreds of languages each year around the world, including in Sinhala and Tamil. Fiction or non-fiction, a book can help us to leap through time (even to the future) and it is much better than watching a movie, because the mind’s eye has to imagine what is going on between the pages.

Transforming the existing learning spaces

The rapidly changing global context took a new meaning over the past years, hampering the progress of global literary efforts. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly 24 million learners might never return to formal education, out of which, 11 million are projected to be girls and young women. To ensure that no one is left behind, we need to enrich and transform the existing learning spaces through an integrated approach and enable literacy learning in the perspective of lifelong learning.

This year’s International Literacy Day will be celebrated worldwide on September 8 under the theme, ‘Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies’.

Incidentally, September is celebrated as the Literacy Month in Sri Lanka, with the key event being the Colombo International Book Fair held at the BMICH from September 23 to 30.

Since 1967, International Literacy Day celebrations have taken place annually around the world to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights, and to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society. Several events will be held in Sri Lanka too to mark the day.

Reading is one habit or addiction that has to be encouraged by teachers and parents. However, reading is not only for children – adults too should fall in love with reading. This is why the authorities have designated this month as the Literary Month. Booksellers are offering considerable discounts this month to lure people to buy new books.

Addiction to ‘screen time’

But the habit and hobby of reading is under threat around the world, thanks to the rise of the Internet and the mobile smartphone. Everyone, from toddler to octogenarian is addicted to the smartphone or tablet, giving up physical books and other reading material. Their logic is, why read news in a newspaper when the smartphone shows things happening here and now? Why read a book when you can watch the TV series based on the book? In fact, the addiction to ‘screen time’ has become a social problem as well, as people are living increasingly virtual lives sans any real-life interactions.

On the other hand, we should not be too worried about people reading books and articles on their tablets, smartphones and e-readers (such as the Kindle), as long as they read. A book is a book, whether you read it in physical or virtual form. Books can even be read to you by another person, usually a professional actor or narrator – this is called an Audiobook.

Curiously, the Internet does have many sites on books which give recommendations on what to read, which leads to some harmony between the web and books.

The idea of e-books and e-book readers is not new. As far back as 1930 when electronic screen technologies did not even exist, American writer Bob Brown predicted that the printed book was bound for obsolescence. Ironically, he predicted this in a printed book, the only medium available then. In his book The Readies, he said the time has come “to rid the reader of the cumbersome book”.

He envisioned a “machine that will allow us to keep up with the vast volume of print available today and be optically pleasing,” which is exactly what an e-reader is. It can hold 3,000 books and some Kindles can even store audio books which no one saw coming back in 1930.


e-books rose to prominence so fast, that many people even began to predict the death of printed books, also called ‘dead-tree books’. (For most books printed now, that is not exactly true given the extensive use of recycled material in printing).

Not so fast, say those in the know. Amazon, the world’s biggest physical bookseller as well as the biggest e-book seller, has reported strong growth in both sectors.

The major book and literature fairs held in key cities around the world still attract thousands. Moreover, the latest studies indicate that printed books are regaining popularity even among the younger generation. Reports on the death of the printed book have certainly been highly exaggerated.

People do love the ‘feel’ of the printed book, even the smell of paper and the sheer pleasure of turning page after page, none of which can be replicated on an e-reader or a tablet. But today’s best e-readers, such as the Kindle Oasis and Scribe, use a paper-like screen technology called e-Ink which is not reflective (unlike LCD screens) and is easier on the eye.

A study featured in the Guardian newspaper gave half its participants a story on paper, and the other half the same story on screen. The result? The iPad readers did not feel that the story was as immersive, and therefore, were not able to connect with it on an emotional level. Those who read on paper were much more capable of placing the story’s events in chronological order.

It is actually difficult to feel emotional about an electronic device – as the famous example goes, can you curl up in bed with a computer? You can, with a good book. And talking of going to bed, a Harvard study on e-reading and sleep deprivation found that if the e-book was “light emitting” (LCD) it took participants an average of 10 minutes longer to fall asleep than those who read physical books instead.

Not real books?

The most popular sentiment that goes against e-books is that they are not ‘real’ books. It is well known that Amazon and other e-book providers can remotely wipe e-books in your collection if an issue with the publisher or a ban crops up. (This has actually happened).

You actually do not own a physical copy of the book, in the same sense that you do not ‘own’ that download of the hottest Hollywood movie you just obtained (legally or illegally) from the Net. On the other hand, a physical Blu-ray or DVD copy of a movie is yours to keep.

One might think that e-books are way cheaper than printed books, because there are virtually no distribution and transport costs involved. Wrong again.

There is an alarming trend where the e-book is actually more expensive or priced very close to the physical book due to various contractual issues faced by publishers. The only difference is that there are no shipping costs associated with the e-book.

At the end of the day, there really is nothing like going to a library or bookstore where you can feel and browse the books at your leisure. Many libraries even offer the e-book versions to complement their physical selection.

Some publishers also offer the e-book version as a digital download if you buy the physical book - the same way you usually get a digital copy of a movie with a Blu-ray and an MP3 version with a CD/Vinyl album. Physical and digital worlds exist in harmony in the movie and music spheres and the same should happen in the world of books and literature.