New UNESCO report highlights the challenge of measuring literacy

© Instituto Nacional para la Educación de los Adultos (INEA), 2011

There is still no common understanding of how to approach literacy as a lifelong learning process, particularly how to define and measure it. This is evident in the second Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE II), recently published by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.

The Belém Framework for Action, adopted by Member States at the Sixth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VI, 2009), emphasises that the development of reading, writing and numeracy skills involves a continuous process that takes place throughout a learner’s life, both within and outside formal educational settings. When literacy is conceived as a continuum there is no definite line between being “literate” and “non-literate”. Rather, literacy becomes a kind of moving target; what people want and need to do with their reading and writing skills depends on specific contexts and evolves over time. Moreover, there is no guarantee that people, having achieved a particular level of literacy skills, will stay at that level over a lifetime. Opportunities and encouragement to practice and apply those skills in everyday life are vital. Evolving demands may require the acquisition of new skills, such as the ability to communicate by e-mail, or the development of greater proficiency in existing skills, such as the ability to critically evaluate a Web page that integrates text, images and sound.

The broader concept of literacy to which Member States committed themselves in the Belém Framework for Action, also poses challenges, particularly for the measurement of literacy. According to GRALE II, most countries still rely on population census and/or household surveys to measure literacy. The problem with this approach is that it is typically based on a single question: “Can you read and write?” This question inevitably produces answers that are self-reported and dichotomous: people can only consider themselves to be either “literate” or “non-literate”. Yet recent studies conducted by the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) show that only one-third of respondents who declare themselves to be “literate” were able to pass a relatively simple literacy test. This shows that such data is not reliable.

GRALE II also reports that as many as 73 countries simply accept the number of school years attended as an indicator of literacy and numeracy skills. This method also cannot generate reliable data. National and cross-country surveys based on direct testing, such as the recently released PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) study, demonstrate that considerable numbers of young people and adults are at the lowest competency level, even having completed compulsory education. The large numbers of primary school children who underperform in standardized cross-country surveys not only raise serious concern about the quality of education but also about the usefulness of automatically reporting people as “literate” once they have completed primary education. The same problem is exposed in a recent report by the EU High Level Group of Experts on Literacy, which stated that the majority of the 73 million European adults with literacy problems have completed compulsory schooling.

GRALE II proposes that countries revise their literacy definitions and data collection methods. The lens of lifelong learning is recommended as the most promising perspective for addressing the literacy challenge. Some countries have already started to align their literacy approach with their efforts to develop lifelong learning strategies and the need to establish a standardised, level-based system that is able to provide reliable and comparable data. Others have participated in the piloting of innovative approaches to measure literacy, such as UNESCO’s Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (LAMP). This has managed to produce comparable data through direct testing while adapting to a variety of contexts, languages and scripts.

In sum, GRALE II shows that conceptual shifts and pragmatic approaches are possible to successfully address and measure literacy as a “moving target”.


More information on GRALE II: Second Global Report on Adult Learning and Education highlights key role of lifelong learning for all


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Second Global Report on Adult Learning and Education: Rethinking Literacy; Summary and Recommendations
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