This is Shirley Griffith. And this is Doug Johnson with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about a continuing problem in many countries -- literacy.
Many people say literacy is the ability to read and write. They say to be considered literate, an individual must have at least some ability to read or write. Some American experts say literacy is more than that. They say it means having both the language and other skills necessary to live and operate in society.
Fifty years ago, the United Nations declared that literacy is a basic human right. The U-N also declared that everyone has a right to food, health care, and housing. One might think that food, health care and housing are more important than literacy education. Yet now literacy is seen as a major tool to help deal with these other needs.
The U-N Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization says literacy is important to improving the lives of individuals. UNESCO notes that literacy has been linked to economic security and good health. It says literacy increases a person's cultural identity and understanding of other cultures. The U-N agency says it also increases a person's involvement in elections and public life.
However, many people around the world are not literate. An estimated eight-hundred-eighty million adults are not able to read or write. UNESCO officials say a majority of them are women. The officials add that many children will not learn to read and write in school. More than one-hundred-ten million school age children around the world do not attend school. Many others complete school or fail to finish their studies without learning to read and write.
People who cannot read and write are called illiterate. People are considered functionally illiterate if they cannot read or write well enough to hold a job, finish schoolwork or vote.
There are many ways to measure literacy. In one method, people are considered literate if they have completed a number of years in school. In another, people's reading and writing skills are tested. The different measures of literacy, however, are not exact and cannot be easily compared.
Many countries report literacy rates for adults, fifteen years of age and older. Using that guide, about ninety-seven percent of the adult population of the United States is literate. However, this includes some people who experts believe are functionally illiterate.
In the United States, the National Center for Education Statistics began testing the language skills of adult Americans in Nineteen-Eighty-Five. The tests are known as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. The Department of Education provides financial support for the testing.
Next year, thousands of adult Americans will be tested. It will be the first measure of the nation's progress in adult literacy since Nineteen-Ninety-Two.
At that time, officials tested more than twenty-six thousand Americans, age sixteen years or older. Each person was asked to take several reading and writing tests. They also answered questions about the amount of money they earned, their education level, and how much time they spent reading.
Twenty-one to twenty-three percent of those questioned nine years ago demonstrated what officials call the lowest level of literacy skills. That represents about forty-million adult Americans.
Many adults in this level were able to answer simple questions involving brief documents or books. They could identify the time or place of a meeting on a document or identify a piece of information in a brief news story. Other adults in this level were not able to answer these questions. Some had such limited skills that they were unable to answer many of the questions.
About twenty-five percent of those with the lowest literacy skills were new arrivals to the United States. They may have been just learning to speak English. In addition, about sixty-five percent of those in this level had ended their education before completing high school. More than thirty percent of the people in the lowest level were sixty-five years of age or older. Twenty-five percent had health conditions that kept them from work, school, housework or other activities. Nineteen percent reported having problems with their eyesight.
Americans with the lowest literacy skills were less likely to be employed. They also worked fewer weeks in a year and earned less money. Those with the lowest skills were far more likely to receive government assistance. And, nearly half of them were considered very needy.
Many people have noted the economic effect of literacy on development. A literate and skilled population can greatly influence the social and economic life of a nation.
There is a long tradition of using literacy programs as a way to reach political goals. In the Fifteen-Hundreds, Swedish officials organized one of the earliest known national literacy campaigns to spread the religion approved by the government. The goal was not only to spread religion, but also to create a nation. Governments of many countries support literacy efforts as a way to strengthen their nation.
In Nineteen-Sixty-One, for example, Cuba temporarily closed its schools and sent teachers to the countryside to work with illiterate people. This campaign helped to raise the national literacy rate. Today, Cuba's literacy rate of almost ninety-six percent is one of the highest in Latin America.
Many countries depend on the efforts of people who offer their time to help individuals who cannot read or write. For example, American John Mauger (pron:MAW-GUR) became concerned about the problem of illiteracy three years ago. He became so concerned that he started teaching five prisoners at a police station near his home in Brazil.
Until three years ago, Mr. Mauger had never worked as a teacher. As a young man in the United States, he worked as an airplane mechanic. He served in the American Air Force during the World War Two. After the war, he accepted an offer to move to Brazil to show Brazilian workers how to repair airplane engines. That was fifty-three years ago. Mr. Mauger is now eighty-five years old and still lives in Brazil.
Mr. Mauger says his teaching method can help anyone learn how to read or write with about thirty hours of study. He says he developed the system with his first group of prisoners. He says other men jailed at the police station showed interest in the program. Then, he began teaching at a large prison. He also has worked with small groups of non-prisoners.
People wishing to learn his system must first know how to write letters of the alphabet and learn which sounds they represent. The system divides letters into three groups. The first group of letters can be written between two lines. The second can be written between two lines, but part of the letter is above the top line. The third group has letters that are partly written below the lower line.
John Mauger's students in Brazil make simple Portuguese words from the letters. He then teaches them how to make more than seven-hundred words. He says many of his former students can now write to family members. They also can read newspapers and magazines.
The chief at the local police station has expressed support for the teaching method. Mr. Mauger says he is pleased with how other Brazilians have reacted. He says the system works so well in Portuguese he developed a similar method to teach people how to read and write in English. ((Recently, he helped to design an Internet web site that explains his system in both languages. Computer users can find this information at http://www.persocom.com.br/ottug/alfabeto.)) OPT
UNESCO officials report that there has been progress in improving literacy rates during the past century. About eighty percent of adults are literate today. In Nineteen-Seventy, less than sixty-five percent were literate.
In late October, a committee of the United Nations approved a proposal designed to aid literacy programs in developing countries. Under the proposal, the General Assembly would declare a special observance, called the United Nations Literacy Decade. The ten-year period would begin on January first, Two-Thousand-Three.
The proposed U-N resolution says that literacy for all is closely linked to the idea of education for all. It says literate environments are needed to help the poor, improve the treatment of women, and guarantee development.
This VOA Special English program was written by George Grow. This is Doug Johnson. And this is Shirley Griffith. Listen again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.