/ 7 September 2018

Literacy and skills are the power for good

Miners mourn the deaths of nine colleagues who died in an underground fire at Harmony Gold’s Doornkop mine in February 2014.
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


Often referred to as a silent disability, low levels of literacy hinder personal growth and limit opportunities. It perpetuates poverty and inequality, and can constrain entire economies. But literacy is only one side of the development coin.

In a world of rapidly evolving technology, the other half is the nurturing of skills.

As the world marks International Literacy Day on September 8, we are given reason to pause and reflect on the status of literacy in South Africa. If the numbers are anything to go by, the country is in a better position than it has been for some time. In the 15 years between 2002 and 2017, Statistics South Africa reports that the percentage of people over the age of 20 who were regarded as functionally illiterate dropped from 28.5% to 13.7%.

But this does not mean that young adults are adequately prepared for further learning or employment, or that they are equipped with the additional skills necessary to compete and succeed in the global economy.

The definition of “functional literacy” only indicates an education of grade seven or above, and not an individual’s ability to read and write at a level suitable to acquire and maintain a job. In fact, South Africa’s leading adult education and training institutions continue to supply literacy training at levels that are below grade nine, and constantly have to create skills-related programmes.

And South Africa is not alone; this tandem issue is a global phenomenon. It’s no mistake that the theme of International Literacy Day 2018 is “literacy and skills development”.

“In order to find a place in society, get a job and respond to social, economic and environmental challenges, traditional literacy and numeracy skills are no longer enough; new skills, including in information and communication technology, are becoming increasingly necessary,” says Audrey Azoulay, Unesco’s director general.

The skills required to succeed professionally include so-called soft skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively, work in a team and think critically, and the hard skills that require deliberate instruction and training. The latter range from basic computer skills, which are essential for most positions (or at least, for acquiring them), to anything from knowing how to weld to knowing how to code. Without these skills, doors remain closed to prospective employees.

This places additional pressure on educational institutions (including adult education and training entities), nongovernmental organisations and businesses to properly train and skill their learners, students, beneficiaries and employees. In order to be successful, this task has to be undertaken collectively, and in as innovative and integrated a way as possible.

As technology makes demands on literacy and skills development, perhaps the best solution is to use technology to improve the way we learn and teach.

If used effectively, educational and skills development programmes based on technology have the capacity to access pupils across all levels, subjects and geographic locations. They also provide a consistent level in the quality of instruction, and are not dependent on the qualifications and abilities of facilitators, which inevitably vary.

As this way of thinking gains momentum, programmes are being developed that make learning interesting, engaging and relevant in a technologically driven and demanding world. The most effective literacy and skills development programmes are using a combination of high-quality computer- and paper-based course material, disseminated through a variety of media.

For example, Media Works’s newly launched Accelerate Pro programme uses textbooks, which contain QR codes, to provide pupils with access to short multimedia lessons via their cellphones. A first for South Africa, these “bubbles”, as they are called, explain complicated concepts and offer practical examples, thereby facilitating learning and improving understanding.

To be meaningful and beneficial, learning programmes need to integrate innovative technological tools. Such approaches have the capacity not only to improve the fundamentals of literacy, but also to teach a wide variety of skills.

Perhaps, the first step to transforming literacy and learning in South Africa is enhancing the collective understanding that learning is a lifelong activity. It is facilitated by a variety of actors and influences, programmes and opportunities, and needs to remain a constant strategic priority for all parties committed to sustained progress.

“Preparing young people and adults for jobs, the majority of which have not yet been invented, is a challenge,” adds Azoulay. “Accessing lifelong learning, taking advantage of pathways between different forms of training, and benefiting from greater opportunities for mobility has thus become indispensable.”

Effective literacy and skills development programmes require perseverance and continuous adaptation. Embracing this concept is the cornerstone of development.

Jackie Carroll is the chief executive and co-founder of Media Works, which focuses on adult education and training in South Africa