Around 1 in 5 people are completely illiterate. Additionally, around 3 billion people around the world struggle with basic level reading and writing (World Literacy Foundation [WLF], 2018). This has significant economic, social, and health impacts at both an individual and societal level.
The World Literacy Foundation (2018) reported that illiteracy and low levels of literacy have estimated to cost the global economy approximately £800 billion annually. Specifically, in the UK, illiteracy costs their economy around £80 billion in 2018 due to costs associated with welfare, unemployment, and social programs, as well as reduced government tax revenue and productivity.
Furthermore, as the global economy moves more towards a knowledge economy, literacy is an essential skill for individuals and states to compete in the global economy. When a high proportion of the adult population has poor literacy skills, many positions remain vacant as insufficient individuals are adequately skilled to fulfill those roles. This results in slower GDP growth in the long term (Lal, 2015).
Individuals with low levels of literacy are more likely to experience poorer employment opportunities and outcomes and lower income. As a result, they often face welfare dependency, low self-esteem, and higher levels of crime. Moreover, people with a low level of literacy have limited ability to make important informed decisions in everyday life as they struggle with tasks such as filling out forms and applications, understanding government policies, reading medicine or nutritional labels, and more (WLF, 2018).
Furthermore, parents who are functionally illiterate often prioritize work before education, have lower expectations in regards to schooling, and the children of parents who fail to complete primary school are more likely to follow in their footsteps and do likewise. This leads to a cycle of disadvantage through generations. On the other hand, strong literacy skills among parents will have positive impacts on their children’s lives as they are more able to help and encourage their children in their schoolwork and communicate with their teachers effectively (WLF, 2018).
Berkman et al. (2004) found that people with low levels of literacy are more likely to experience adverse health outcomes, have poor health literacy, and practice poor health behaviors. For example, people with low levels of health literacy are more likely to experience:
- Higher hospital admission rates
- A lack of engagement with health services such as cancer screening
- A lack of understanding and adherence to medical advice
Moreover, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the great lack of health literacy globally. During this time, many people were challenged in understanding and applying the health information provided by health professionals and the government (Paakkari & Okan, 2020). Adequate health literacy is important in ensuring that people are able to understand and correctly apply health information to prevent disease, and the failure to do so increases the risk for disease transmission.
An Effective Solution: Early Intervention
Early interventions targeting children in early childhood could be the most effective approach to increasing literacy skills in the long term. According to a Harvard study (2007), brain development occurs rapidly in the first few years of life, before formal schooling even begins, where over one million new neural connections are made every second. During these years, sensory pathways for early language skills and higher cognitive functions already begin to develop.
Developing literacy and language skills before formal schooling sets a child up for success in school and life. Children with a poor foundation in literacy before entering formal schooling are more likely to struggle academically and to drop out of school, increasing their likelihood of facing poorer employment and social outcomes in the future. Moreover, the quality of the environment at home and early childhood services is one of the key factors for literacy development. Hence, early childhood is a critical stage for parents and early childhood services to facilitate learning experiences for children (Royal Children’s Hospital, 2008).
Rather than addressing the issue of poor literacy in adults when it arises, it is better to prevent the problem and its consequences in the first place through early childhood interventions. While investments in early childhood programs are commonly argued to be a burden on state budgets and taxpayers, Heckman (2018) found that quality early childhood programs actually have a 13% return rate for investment per annum as a result of improved education, health, social and economic outcomes. With these significant returns, these early childhood programs will pay for themselves eventually over time. Therefore, investments in early childhood education, particularly for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, will lead to short- and long-term social and economic gains.
For instance, World Literacy Foundation’s work in Victoria focuses on providing early literacy skills and school preparedness for children aged 0-5 years from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, the organization’s work includes educating new parents to support their children in their learning, providing regular reading groups, and distributing books to young children who may lack access to them.
With the significant economic, social, and health costs low levels of literacy have on individuals, communities, and societies, this is a global issue that needs to be addressed. Investing in early childhood literacy programs will bring back greater returns not only economically, but also returns in health and social outcomes.
Written by: Amanda Low & Nicola Miranda
- Berkman, N. D., Dewalt, D. A., Pignone, M. P., Sheridan, S. L., Lohr, K. N., Sutton, S. F., … Bonito A. J. (2004). 87 Literacy and Health Outcomes: Summary. In AHRQ Evidence Report Summaries. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11942/
- Center on the Developing Child (2007). InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-science-of-ecd/#:~:text=In%20the%20first%20few%20years,brain%20circuits%20become%20more%20efficient
- Heckman. (2018). Social Media Content: Early Investments and Return on Investment for ECE/Childcare. Retrieved from https://heckmanequation.org/resource/social-posts-early-investments-and-return-on-investment-for-ece-childcare/
- Lal, B. S. (2015). The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy Overview. International Journal of Advance Research and Innovative Ideas in Education, 1(5), 665. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311562787_The_Economic_and_Social_Cost_of_Illiteracy_An_Overview
- Paakkari, L., & Okan, O. (2020). COVID-19: health literacy is an underestimated problem. The Lancet. Public health, 5(5), e249–e250. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30086-4
- Royal Children’s Hospital. Literacy in Early Childhood. Retrieved from https://ww2.rch.org.au/emplibrary/ccch/PB13_Literacy_EarlyChildhood.pdf
- World Literacy Foundation. (n.d.). Australia. Retrieved from https://worldliteracyfoundation.org/australia/
- World Literacy Foundation. (2018). The Economic & Social Costs of Illiteracy. Retrieved from TheEconomicSocialCostofIlliteracy-2.pdf
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