Although the ability to read and write is something we take for granted, the reality is that around one billion people across the world cannot read this blog post, do not have access to education and are unable to pursue college studies. It’s time to recognise this global problem on International Literacy Day.


What is International Literacy Day?

An initiative of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), International Literacy Day is an annual global event that aims to create awareness around the issue of illiteracy. According to the UN, at least 750 million youth and adults still cannot read and write, and 250 million children are failing to acquire basic literacy skills.

This year, the day will be celebrated under the theme of “Literacy in a digital world”, in recognition of the fact that millions of people do not have access to the many advantages of digital technology.  As UNESCO explains:


“Those who lack access to digital technologies and the knowledge, skills and competencies required to navigate them, can end up marginalised in increasingly digitally driven societies. Literacy is one such essential skill.”


The celebration’s main event will take place at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, where world leaders and experts will meet to discuss the type of literacy skills people need to succeed in a digital society, as well as the literacy policies and programmes that can be used to close the digital divide.

The 2017 UNESCO International Literacy Prizes awards ceremony will also take place to reward excellent literacy practices, with this year’s winners coming from South Africa, Canada, Columbia, Jordan and Pakistan.


Literacy in a digital world


What is the state of literacy in Africa?

The literacy rate in sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest in the world, with just 64% of people in the region being literate. Of the world’s 10 countries with the lowest literacy rates, nine can be found in Africa.

South Africa’s literacy rate is amongst the highest on the continent at 94%, but this still means that more than 3.3 million people in the country are illiterate. The South African government’s Kha ri Gude Mass Literacy Campaign has made good strides in decreasing illiteracy in the country, with 3.9 million adults reached between 2008 and 2015.

A number of NGOs are also involved in the cause. The South African project ‘Growing FunDza Fanz Readers and Writers’ had the distinction of being awarded the 2017 UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize, for its work in creating an online platform providing reading materials and literacy courses.

South Africa’s National Book Week – an initiative to promote the value of reading as a fun and pleasurable activity – takes place from 4 -10 September, coinciding with International Literacy Day (8 September).


International Book Week


How can you help?

  • Donate books and other reading materials to local schools, libraries, community organisations and NGOs.
  • Become a volunteer for an NGO involved in literacy initiatives.
  • Sign up for any literacy-related events taking place in your area.
  • Become a reading or writing tutor for children and adults.
  • Consider making monetary donations to relevant NGOs.


Illiteracy is a massive stumbling block to the welfare of millions of people. Assisting someone to become literate is the most precious gift you could possibly give. So let’s all stand together in recognising International Literacy Day, and doing our bit to help.


If you want to improve your own English literacy, check out our English Language Skills E-book.