One in eight people worldwide could read Pride and Prejudice when Jane Austen published it in 1813.
Today, it is the opposite. Only one in eight people worldwide is illiterate.
Literacy is among the most profound social changes of the past two centuries – and perhaps the most overlooked.
Because written language is ubiquitous, we take it for granted. Yet we should not do that, for two reasons.
First, modern society would not exist without universal literacy. Literacy allowed a broader spread of education. It made social mobility possible. It democratised many aspects of life like political, cultural and social participation.
Second, literacy is under threat, especially in New Zealand. PISA 2018 was the latest round of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It showed that 19% of 15-year-olds in New Zealand do not have the reading skills they need to learn, work, and participate fully in society.
To make matters worse, PISA also revealed that underprivileged groups in our society struggle the most. 30 percent of Māori and 36 percent of Pasifika 15-year-olds lacked basic reading skills. These children are not to blame. The education system is failing them.
In the same way as the historical rise of literacy paved the way for social mobility, our decline in literacy rates now limits it. If you cannot read well, many education pathways and professional careers will be closed.
As a society, we cannot tolerate this situation. We must discover what has gone wrong in our schools and improve it.
Fortunately, the Government acknowledges the challenge. The Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, has promised a ‘literacy reset’, and the Ministry of Education is providing new phonics books for schools.
The bad news is these changes may not be enough. It has become difficult to even find instructors with a grasp of modern teaching methods.
To improve our students’ reading abilities, their teachers must be better trained. The training should use the latest research on how the brain connects letters and words.
This understanding, and methods following from it, will help New Zealand reverse its worrying literacy decline.
We do not want to return to Jane Austen’s times when class and background determined a child’s success in education and life.