Literacy Skills: A Basic Human Right

April 20, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

A recent paper titled “International Perspective”, published by UNESCO Institute for Statistics, states that more than 860 million men and women world-wide cannot read or write. That is, there are more illiterate adults globally than there are adults in Europe and North America combined. In developing countries, it is estimated that one person in four is illiterate, and UNESCO states this figure is probably a significant underestimate. Yet literacy has been proven to be key to peace, health, and the economic success of people and nations. The opportunity to acquire the ability to read, write and calculate is recognized as a basic human right, one that enables the acquisition of the skills necessary for effective and productive performance within society.

In 1961 Cuba set out to tackle this challenge in one of the most inspiring mass education campaigns in history. There is a fascintating story there that many so-called developed nations and disaffected youth the world over can learn from.

Complete illiteracy means a person cannot read or write at all. You, reading these words, do you know anyone who is completely illiterate? Equally relevant is the concept of functional illiteracy. This means an individual may have basic reading, writing and numerical skills, but cannot apply them to accomplish tasks that are necessary to make informed choices and participate fully in everyday life. Such tasks may include:

· reading a medicine label

· reading a nutritional label on a food product

· balancing a cheque book

· filling out a job application

· reading and responding to correspondence in the workplace

· filling out a home loan application

· reading a bank statement

· comparing the cost of two items to work out which one offers the best value

· working out the correct change at a supermarket.

It is surprising to learn that, in my country, Canada, for example, 40% of the population is functionally illiterate as described above.

In Great Britain, an enquiry by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education found that one-in-five adults need help with reading and writing. Poor literacy limits a person’s ability to engage in activities that require either critical thinking or a solid base of literacy and numeracy skills. Such activities may include:

· understanding government policies and voting in elections

· using a computer to do banking or interact with government agencies

· calculating the cost and potential return of a financial investment

· using a computer or smartphone to look up and access up-to-date news and information; communicate with others via email or social networking sites; or shop online, read product reviews and user feedback and get the best prices for goods and services

· completing a higher education degree or training

· assisting children with homework.

Tragically, illiteracy also costs human lives. How many babies, children and even adults have their lives endangered due to the inability to read, write and use literacy skills to access information that could save their lives? In Jonathan Kozol’s 1985 book, Illiterate America, he was shocked at the serious physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems that illiterates must constantly endure — problems that we would consider a crisis if they occurred to us. Illiterates must endure at least 34 different types of problems in order to “get by” in our present complicated society. Many simple daily tasks we take for granted are beyond the abilities of many illiterate people.

When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cuba’s population was six million people. Of those, 25% were totally illiterate, one million of whom were adults. The revolutionary government planned to undertake sweeping changes to reform society, but those illiterate Cubans did not have the skills necessary for effective and productive performance within society. How could the government inform and involve people in these changes if 25% could not read a billboard or an information pamphlet, fill out the most simple form, or even sign their name?

When reporters asked Fidel Castro what the most important things facing the new revolutionary government were, he is reputed to have said: The first most important thing is education. The second most important thing is education, and the third is also education.

Speaking before the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 1960, Fidel Castro made an audacious announcement. By the end of 1961, he said, Cuba would be “un territorio libre de analfabetismo”, a territory free from illiteracy. By all accounts, Fidel had not told his colleagues that he would make this announcement. Upon his return to Cuba, he told Minister of Education, Armando Hart, to make it happen. With few resources, the campaign got underway in May of 1961, delayed by the April Bay of Pigs invasion. When the campaign ended seven months later, marked by an event held in Havana’s gigantic civic square attended by a million people, illiteracy among adults had been reduced from 25% to 3.9%. At the core of the campaign were 100,000 youth, average age 15 who answered the call to volunteer as literacy teachers. On December 22, 1961, a flag was raised proclaiming Cuba to be “Un Territorio Libre de Analfabetismo .” 707,000 adult Cubans, mostly campesinos, agricultural labourers, had learned to read and write, the eldest a 104-year-old woman who had been born a slave.

A UNESCO team sent to Cuba in 1964 to study and evaluate the methodology and results of the literacy campaign concluded that it was the most successful literacy campaign ever undertaken. That designation still stands.

An immediate follow-up educational program enabled the newly-literate Cubans to achieve primary, then secondary grades.

While the writer was working in Cuba in the mid 1960s, classes were being administered to newly-literate people during work-time so they could attain a sixth grade level of education. This program consolidated the effectiveness of Fidel’s vision: to end the state of ignorance in which so many Cubans had lived, ignored by successive governments for more than four centuries.

What Cuba began in 1961 continues today: guaranteed universal education. Graduates may attend any of Cuba’s colleges and universities at no cost. According to UNESCO, currently, one of every fifteen Cubans holds a university degree.

UNESCO has stated that the Cuban struggle to eradicate illiteracy and to bring all students and adults to an effective functional level has proven itself not just a one-time tour de force , but rather a success story that has no end.

An example of Cuba’s education success story without end is the literacy program for export that was developed by Cuban pedagogue, Leonela Relys. Called Yo Sí Puedo! – Yes I Can! – the program’s methodology is contained in audio-visual lessons guided by a facilitator. Conceived to be international in character, its emphasis is in outreach to Latin American countries, but it is designed to be flexible so that it may be adapted to different social realities and languages. To consolidate the basic literacy learned using Yo Sí Puedo! a complimentary program called Yo Sí Puedo Seguir! – Yes I Can Continue Learning – enables the new learner to complete primary school grades.

Cubans trained to facilitate the Yo Sí Puedo! program have administered it in 30 countries, among them Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Columbia, Nigeria, Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa and East Timor. Recently the program was taken to New Zealand and Australia. In Canada, the ArrowMight foundation has adapted Yo Sí Puedo! to deliver adult literacy, numeracy and computer education to Canada’s First Nations people. Between 2002 and 2009, six million people learned basic literacy using the Yo Sí Puedo! program, prompting UNESCO to honour Cuba in 2006 with the Rey Sejong Literacy award for contributing significantly to the reduction of illiteracy world-wide.

Cuba virtually eradicated illiteracy in 1961 because Fidel Castro had not only the vision, but the political will to make that vision a reality. The result of Cuba’s literacy revolution was nothing less than a transformation, not only of each newly-literate individual but of the nation itself underpinned by the force of lay-people and teenage instructors.

It is said that the act of reading is, in itself, revolutionary. If literacy is at least one of the keys to peace, health and the economic success of people and nations, government leaders must reduce the rhetoric about improving literacy skills and actually do something about it.

Shirley Langer lived and worked in Cuba for almost five years in the mid 1960s. She is the author of the recently published book, “Anita’s Revolution”, an historical fiction novel chronicling the Cuban literacy campaign of 1961. The novel is available as an e-book from major online bookstores. The book in print form may be purchased online from CreateSpace , or by contacting Shirley directly by e-mail:

To learn more about author Shirley Langer and Anita’s Revolution, visit the website:

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