Literacy and open paths

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

In a time when the written word is everywhere – social media, shop fronts, health protocol reminders – it’s easy for many adults to take literacy for granted. But on the eve of International Literacy Day, it’s important to remind ourselves not only of the importance of literacy, but also what it means to be literate and the challenges many face to become literate or to teach these skills to others.

Even when using the simplest definition of literacy, that of the ability to read and write, it’s important to remember the miraculous magnitude of this skill. As noted by experts such as Maryanne Wolf, human beings are not born with an innate ability to read or write. Literacy is not biologically determined, which means that there is nothing in our genetics or in our brains that makes the development of literacy something that is only a matter of time and growth, like learning to walk or laugh.

The written word is a cultural creation, one only possible because one thing that our brains do have is neuroplasticity – the ability to form new connections or repurpose old ones, to allow us to learn abilities beyond those we were born with the innate capacity to do. To put it another way, when we learn how to read and write we are in a very real sense rewiring our brains, creating new networks and connections where none previously existed. It involves recognizing letters, memorizing rules and patterns, evaluating surrounding context and putting it all together to understand meaning.

When we see what learning to be literate requires on a biological level, it’s easier to appreciate why it can be so challenging, and why it is so important that it be taught when our brains are at their most malleable. As I’ve touched upon before, the COVID pandemic and ensuing school closures have had an immeasurable harmful impact on the education of our youth, not to mention their overall well-being.

All this, when many of our students were already struggling: Based on the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019, our fourth graders ranked the least out of students in 58 countries. Another 2019 study, the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics, which focused on Grade 5 students, revealed that only 10 percent of Filipino students surveyed had developed proficiency in reading, only 17 percent in Mathematics and only one percent in writing.

It’s also important to consider that literacy as expressed can be more than just the ability to read and write, remarkable as that already is. It may also consist of the cultural and social practices and routines of the word: the habit of reading for pleasure and information, of doing research and taking notes, of engaging others in written conversation.

What literacy enables is an opening of our inner world, whether that is to bring new opinions, experiences and information within, or to share of ourselves with others without. Literacy enables the words and passions of the long dead to resonate with us in the present and enables us to give some degree of permanence to our own fleeting thoughts and feelings.

The written word has inspired movements and toppled tyrants; it has given purpose and inspiration to the lives of millions and is essential in many of our most significant moments and our day-to-day affairs. Literacy opens us to the world and opens the world to us.

Literacy is power, and because of that it is also contested terrain. Colonizers impose their language on the conquered and create standards of education that privilege their own cultural products over those of others. While the age of widespread military colonialism is largely past, its legacy remains, and it continues in the way some majority ethnicities treat minorities and indigenous cultures.

Literacy is contested in terms of access, with money as the gatekeeper. We feel this all the more during the pandemic where the gap between those families that had the resources – the gadgets, internet access, the enrollment in the right schools – to pivot to online learning and those that did not. The latest enrollment data reveal that only 25.03 million students enrolled in elementary schools this school year, from a student population of over 27 million last school year. In addition, more than 800 private elementary and high schools have temporarily stopped operations due to low enrollment.

Many children who would have been starting school when the pandemic began have gone more than a year without formal schooling. For children who were still learning the basics of literacy when the pandemic hit, without adequate home support, this lack of formal education can lead to regression. Either way, it leads to youth being left behind, through no fault of their own, endangering both their futures and that of the nation that will be deprived of the full blossoming of their talents and capabilities.

The theme of International Literacy Day this year is “Literacy for a human-centered recovery: Narrowing the digital divide.” The theme is once again a reminder that while the pandemic has affected all of us, it has disproportionately affected the more vulnerable – and when those vulnerable are children, particularly those who have yet to learn or are still learning how to read and write, urgent steps need to be taken.

Without giving them a fair shot at literacy, we slam the doors closed on our youth. We cut them off from so much of the wisdom of the past, the stories of the present and the knowledge of the future. We curtail their opportunities and not only obscure the path towards their dreams – we keep from them many of the sources of inspiration that would have created those dreams in the first place.

We cannot allow a generation of children to lose access to so many possible futures. We must do all that we can to holistically promote literacy, from increasing the compensation of teachers, to providing support for struggling schools and parents, to pushing for the studies that would allow us to plan for a safe return to face-to-face learning for those without access to remote learning tools. The crisis faced by our children is less evident than that of those facing death from COVID-19, but it is no less important.

For the future of our youth, let us keep their paths open, and pave them with words.

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