Literacy: a Foundation for Development of Society


Literacy is a basic human need and human right to knowledge. It has meaning only when it leads to participation in cultural and social activities. It is empowerment which means ability to make decisions and control affairs of ones own life, economically, socially and politically, it is the first step in a life-long earning process of man and women. Life without literacy is life without hope, security and freedom. It is the foundation of all skills and pre-requisite for economic development. Moreover, according to Stromquist (1995) in modern societies literacy skills are fundamental to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, active and passive participation in local and global social community.

At the same time literacy is helpful in the development of human relations, the economy, the political and social structure of nations and the culture. All these aspects are precisely described below.

Individual Development and Literacy

Literacy is useful at the individual level in inculcating humanistic etiquettes and manners. The human benefits from literature are related to factors such as the improved self-esteem, empowerment, creativity and critical reflection that participation in adult literacy programmes and the practice of literacy may produce. Human benefits are intrinsically valuable and may also be instrumental in realizing other benefits of literacy: improved health, increased political participation and so on (UNESCO, 2006).

The most apparent aspects of the human characters influenced by the literacy teaching are the awareness, empowerment and self esteem. Bown (1990) claims that with the acquisition of literacy masses become more confident and courageous. The awareness produced among them because of the newly imparted knowledge help them to demonstrate decisive and confident behavior. They become more active in their social and private activities.

Literacy can also empower learners to take individual as well as collective action in various contexts of their every day life, such as household, workplace and community. These actions can affect two main related ways. First, literacy programmes themselves may be designed and conducted so as to make participants enough able to become authors of their own learning, developers of their own knowledge and partners in dialogue about limited situations in their lives.

Second, literacy programmes can contribute to broader socio-economic processes of empowerment provided they take place in a supportive environment. Many learners of both the genders want to become able to read and write letters, deal with money only because they desire be to self-reliant and to exert control over everyday-life situations, citing, for instance, keeping secrets and not being cheated (Lind, 1996).

Economic Development and Literacy

An educated and skilled workforce is one of the pillars of the knowledge-based economy. Increasingly, comparative advantages among nations come less from natural resources or cheap labour and more from technical innovations and the competitive use of knowledge. Education is one of the most powerful instruments known for reducing poverty and inequality and for laying the basis for sustained economic growth. Literacy is a word that is usually associated with the more positive aspects of human civilization, like social and economic development. Indeed, the label illiterate has been used and is today often used to characterize the poverty and lack of education still experienced in many parts of the world. Whether in the domain of religious tradition, the invention of the printing press, or the Internet, literacy has been central to many of our most profound human and historical developments.

Literacy has a wide range of advantages and benefits for economic, social and political development of a country. The positive relationship between economic development and literacy levels and the impact of investment in education on economic growth are well established. The transiting of the world towards a knowledge based economy is adding to the importance of human resources in general, and of education in particular. Human resources are poised to commend an increasingly important role in the balance of world economics and, hence, political power. Literacy is linked to economic success as literacy levels help determines the kind of jobs people find, the salaries they make and their ability to upgrade their work skills. Literacy and adult education have been recognized as essential elements of human resource development. It is a big factor in the economic success of a society. That’s because our literacy levels help determine the kind of jobs we find, the salaries we make and whether we’re likely to experience unemployment in our lives.

Literacy is one of the major objectives of the educational system, and the number of years of education has long been found to be a good predictor of individual earnings. How much of the benefits of education can be accounted for by an individual’s level of literacy is described by Osberg, L. (2001) in the following way;

The first examination of men employed full time and full year shows that literacy accounts for about 30% of the return to education. Whatever way the literacy scores is stretched for the full-time, full-year work force, it is always statistically significant.

In the same way while discussing the benefits of the acquisition of lit skill Osberg, L. (2001) describes the impact of literacy upon the personal earnings regarding ones investment in the process of literacy acquisition is as under;

If we look at males who work full time, full year, and measure education by credentials obtained, the conclusion that literacy skills explain a significant fraction of the return to education is altered. In some cases, the impact of literacy skills appears greater. It appears that including a control for measured literacy skills reduces by 40% to 45% the estimated benefit of a university education. Although the impact of including measured literacy with very low education is less (a 16% to 26% decline), this examination still indicates that much of the measured benefit of education is due to literacy skills.

Likewise, Fiedrich &Jellene (2003) state that a substantial body of evidence indicates that literacy increases the productivity and earning potential of a population. An educated person earns more and has greater labour mobility. While analysing the impact of literacy UNESCO (2005) observes that literacy not only enhances the individuals earning, it also has positive influence upon the economic growth of a country;

Around the world, renewed emphasis is being placed by governments and employers on literacy and numeric skills for all people to enhance their employability, job satisfaction, level of remuneration and community participation. Recent OECD research has indicated that raising a country’s literacy score by 1 per cent leads to a rise in productivity of 2.5 per cent with the flow-on increase of 1.5 per cent in GDP.

Since 1980, the wage difference between adults without a high school diploma, those with a high school diploma, and those with some post-secondary education has steadily grown wider. This trend helps explain why the current income differential between the top 20 percent of earners and the bottom 20 percent is at a historic high. In 1997, high school graduates earned an average of 42 percent more than those with less than a high school education, and this wage gap continues to grow.

Education investments are also crucial for the sustained economic growth that low-income countries are seeking to stimulate, and without which long-term poverty reduction is impossible. Literacy directly contributes to worker productivity, and can promote better natural resource management and more rapid technological adaptation and innovation. The same findings are described by Hanushek & Kimko (2000) when they say;

It is fundamental to the creation of a competitive, knowledge-based economy, not only for the direct production of the critical mass of scientists and skilled workers that every country requires—no matter how small or poor—but also because broad-based education is associated with faster diffusion of information within the economy, which is crucial for enabling workers and citizens in both the traditional and modern sectors to increase productivity.

Literacy is one of the most powerful instruments societies have for reducing deprivation and vulnerability. It helps lift earnings potential and expands labour mobility. Still, literacy can be thought of as a currency in any society. It is the most powerful instruments known for reducing poverty and inequality and for laying the basis for sustained economic growth. It is fundamental for the construction of democratic societies and dynamic, globally competitive economies. For individuals and for nations, literacy is the key to creating, applying, and spreading knowledge.

In the present era, literacy is also recognized as an important tool for national development. It is also important to describe the contribution of literacy in various aspects of other development. Literacy is often understood as something that is good for the individual and society. According to Carr-Hill, R. A. et al. (2001) the education of each individual has the possibility of making others better off (in addition to the individual benefits). Specifically, a more educated society may translate into higher rates of innovation, higher overall productivity through firms’ ability to introduce new and better production methods, and faster introduction of new technology.

UNESCO (2005) discussed the relationship of literacy and development as under;

A community cannot foster development without an educated population. Businesses, large or small, are unlikely to choose to invest if skilled or trainable human resources are unavailable. Similarly, a community cannot retain educated people without an attractive economic environment.

Social Development and Literacy

Literacy may also have social consequences that are important objectives for national policy planning. Particularly in developing countries, the gender dimension of illiteracy has been raised in this regard, as the majority of illiterate or low-literate adults tend to be female in the poorest developing nations (Stromquist, 1999). Furthermore, there are numerous empirical relationships between literacy and fertility, infant mortality, and so forth. It is an admitted fact that literacy occupies an essential place in the life of the community. Beyond a reflection on citizenship, we put forward the idea of an active society in which individuals have a sense of freedom, but also one of responsibility. There will be no progress for mankind without an awareness that each one of us has for their freedom and their responsibility, whether in their community, their nation or in the world. Links between education and society are strong, and each influences the other. Education can help change society by improving and strengthening skills, values, communications, mobility, personal prosperity and freedom. UNESCO (2006) observes the influence of literacy upon the social life of an individual in the following way;

The practice of literacy can be instrumental in people’s achievement of a range of capabilities such as maintaining good health and living longer, learning throughout life, controlling reproductive behavior, raising healthy children and educating them. Improving literacy levels thus has potentially large social benefits, such as increased life expectancy, reduced child mortality and improved children’s health. The evidence has often focused on the benefits of education, as opposed to literacy per se, but evidence on the effects of adult literacy programmes is beginning to accumulate.

The changes in society have also affected our roles as parents and family members. Parents are the first and most important teachers of their children, and their role is becoming increasingly more demanding. Standards-based education reform is raising the bar for children, and higher standards may force more children out of the traditional school system before they have acquired needed skills. Children profit from the support of educated, concerned parents in meeting the learning challenges that face them. Parents need adequate literacy skills to help children prepare to enter school and to support children’s continued learning. In homes where parents have low literacy skills and do not model literacy as an important value, children’s learning can suffer. In fact, problems associated with low literacy are often intergenerational. Parents with low literacy skills are often unable to help prepare young children for school or participate fully in the academic activities of their school-age children

The services of literacy regarding social life are much obvious in four major aspects namely health, gender equality, education, and reproductive behavior. Above all literacy also has implications for the safety of the communities. Along with the traditional components of literacy, citizens may need higher order thinking and problem-solving skills, computer and other technology-related skills, literacy skills necessary for the workplace, and literacy skills appropriate for family life.

The acquisition of literacy benefits personal health. Particularly powerful for girls, it profoundly affects reproductive health, and also improves child mortality and welfare through better nutrition and higher immunization rates. A growing body of longitudinal research evaluating the health benefits of literacy programmes points to the same impact as that of education, and indeed in some cases, to a greater impact. For example, infant mortality was less among Nicaraguan mothers who had participated in an adult literacy campaign than among those who had not, and the reduction was greater for those made literate in the literacy campaign than for those made literate in primary school (Sandiford et al., 1995). Similarly, Bolivian women who attended literacy and basic education programmes displayed gains in health-related knowledge and behavior, unlike women who had not participated in such programmes (UNESCO, 2006). Moreover, it seems that in the future education may be the single most effective preventive weapon against HIV/AIDS.

But, the results of literacy programmes that directly address health related instructions had not proved much successful. Some studies indicate that literacy programmes that themselves attempt to transmit health information have not been particularly successful as the participants preferred reading and writing over receiving health knowledge (Robinson-Pant, 2005). Thus, in the countries with low literacy rates there is need of such literacy programmes that stress upon the acquisition of the reading and writing skills rather than some technical skill or training in a particular field.

As far as the impact of literacy of gender equality is concerned it had proved helpful in reducing any kind of such inequality. Education is a great leveler whereas the illiteracy being one of the strongest predictors of poverty. Primary education plays a catalytic role for those most likely to be poor, including girls, ethnic minorities, orphans, disabled people, and rural families. By enabling larger numbers to share in the growth process, literacy can be the powerful tide that lifts all boats. The gender inequality between the men and the women is being tried to reduce through giving more stress to the female literacy, limiting the ways in which gender equality can be addressed holistically and directly through the programmes themselves. The programmes have thus tended to concentrate specifically on women’s inequality rather than gender equality. Participation in adult literacy programmes does enable women to gain access to and challenge male domains by entering male-dominated areas of work, learning languages of power previously associated with men and participating in household finances. Examples of elite languages newly available to women include English in Uganda and posh Bangla in Bangladesh (Fiedrich and Jellema, 2003). Similarly, in some Bangladesh households, literacy has enabled women to become involved in the financial management of the household, previously controlled by men (Maddox, 2005). In India, an evaluation of a literacy programme showed that women learners had a strong desire to earn. Similarly, women may become aware of further education possibilities or of information about AIDS prevention through literacy.

The productive behavior is also influenced with the literacy acquisition. The negative correlation between education and fertility is well established (Cochrane, 1979). For example, studies based on demographic and health surveys find that, on average, a 10% expansion in the primary gross enrolment ratio lowers the total fertility rate by 0.1 children and a 10% increase in the secondary gross enrolment ratio by 0.2 children (Hannum and Buchmann, 2003). Moreover, the mechanisms whereby education may reduce fertility include its effects on women’s autonomy, infant mortality and child health, spouse choice, marriage age, female employment outside the home and the costs of educating children.

Another important aspect of the social advantages of literacy is that it has significant educational benefits. Literacy on one hand supports the cause of education. But, on the other hand it is itself influenced by the level of education. For example, the parents who themselves are educated, whether through schooling or adult programmes, are more likely to send their children to school and more able to help the children in the course of their schooling. It used to be thought that literacy contributes to the development of abstract reasoning (UNESCO, 2006). In general, the effects of literacy are more likely to be determined by formal schooling, socialization, and the cultural practices of a particular society than by literacy.

Cultural Development and Literacy

Literacy has an important relation with the culture. This relation is of two modes. Firstly, literacy influences the culture. It is helpful in bringing the cultural change and preservation of the present cultural values and norms. Moreover, the transformation of culture, in one way or the other, is also dependent of literacy. Secondly, literacy itself is influenced by the prevailing cultural environment as planning of a literacy programmes is usually done according to the present culture along with the future needs and requirements. That is why the literacy materials, and the strategies of literacy imparting always correspond with the cultural aspects.

At the same the cultural benefits of literacy are harder to identify clearly than benefits in terms of political participation. Adult literacy programmes may facilitate the transmission of certain values and promote transformation of other values, attitudes and behaviors through critical reflection. They also provide access to written culture, which the newly literate may choose to explore independently of the cultural orientation of the literacy programmes in which they participated. Adult literacy programmes can thus be instrumental in preserving and promoting cultural openness and diversity. However, ‘any effect that literacy may have on the culture (i.e. what people believe and how they do things) of an individual or group will be slow, will not be easily and immediately accessible, and will be difficult to identify as the outcome of a single intervention such as a literacy and adult education programme’ (Farah, 2005).

The impact of literacy in the cultural change is also very important. It brings in to action new concepts, norms and values after enabling the people to analyze their existing attitudes and behaviors as literacy programmes can help challenge attitudes and behavioral patterns. Indeed, this type of cultural transformation is central to the Foreran approach, which aims to develop skills of critical reflection (Freire, 1987). Literacy programme also try to affect other cultural aspects as stated by UNESCO (2006);

Many programmes also aim to promote values such as equity, inclusion, and respect for cultural diversity, peace and active democracy. However, such transformation typically is limited.

Adult literacy programmes can help preserve cultural diversity. In particular, literacy programmes that make use of minority languages have the potential to improve people’s ability to participate in their own culture. This has been observed in programmes whose outcomes included the writing down of folk tales (Chebanne et al., 2001).

But, new approaches to literacy suggest that literacy is always contextualized, situated within a particular socio-cultural setting. There is a growing awareness that there is no one universally applicable form of literacy. Rather, there are different literacy’s and literacy practices for different groups (occupational groupings, for example) and for different kinds of activities (religion, education, commercial activities etc) and for different social and institutional contexts.

Now if we consider above presented framework of literacy it becomes essential that the planning of literacy programmes should be done very carefully so that it can become inline with the ever changing culture.

Political Development and Literacy

Literacy is a tool for creating the political awareness among the masses. It helps them to understand the nature of government in their country and ways for effective communication with it for the solution of their problems. Literacy possesses the empowering potential that can be translated into the increased political awareness and participation. It in return contributes to the quality of public policies and the democracy.

As far as the relationship between education and political participation is concerned, it is well established (Hannum and Buchmann, 2003). Educated people are to some extent more likely to vote and voice more tolerant attitudes and democratic values. According to Carron et al. (1989) participation in adult literacy programmes is also correlated with increased participation in trade unions, community action and national political life, especially when empowerment is at the core of programme design. Evident are there that the expansion of education may contribute to the expansion of democracy and vice versa (UNESCO, 2006). In return the democratic classroom practices are the most effective means of promoting civic knowledge and engagement among students.

Likewise, literacy has the potential to benefit disadvantaged ethnic groups and the minorities of different states. But, this benefit is of literacy become doubtful because in some countries the traditional caste system is too strong that it does not permit the members of minority group or disadvantaged people even to have a meal with them or allow them to participate in their ceremonies or social .activities. The same fact is precisely advocated by Hannum and Buchmann (2003) in the following words;

A range of experiences appears to support the statement that ‘It is not safe to assume that expansion in access to education will allow disadvantaged minorities to “catch up” with initially advanced ethnic groups, at least in the short run’.


By keeping in view over all importance of literacy, it can easily be concluded that:

1. Literacy makes the people more consistent in their attitudes and actions, more polite and civilized in their dealings, more accurate and perfect in their decisions and reliable in their every day life. Moreover, literacy helps in building confidence among individuals by providing them the necessary knowledge and skills to combat their problems and difficulties. Finally, literacy occupies an essential place in the life of the community. Beyond a reflection on citizenship, we put forward the idea of an active society in which individuals have a sense of freedom, but also one of responsibility. There will be no progress for mankind without an awareness that each one of us has for their freedom and their responsibility, whether in their community, their nation or in the world.

2. Few countries are unconscious to the perception that a literate and skilled populace can have an important impact on the social and economic life of each nation. Numerous claims have been put forward that a given minimum rate of literacy is a prerequisite for economic growth in developing countries. In the context of global competition, adult illiteracy will lead to economic ruin.

3. Literacy or basic education is really become as effective tools to help people solve the problems they face in their daily life and also assist them to live in harmony with their rapidly changing environment. People today have to be able to realize that they can use education to seek vocational skills to improve the quality of life so as to reach happiness which is based on each individual’s personal experiences, complete happiness can be achieved when there is no physical or emotional conflict between man and his environment physically or mentally. This shows that basic education or literacy today plays the important role as the tools that will enable individual to create his own harmony between himself and today’s rapidly changing surroundings especially the world today.

4. The impact of literacy in the cultural change is also very important. It brings in to action new concepts, norms and values after enabling the people to analyze their existing attitudes and behaviors as literacy programmes can help challenge attitudes and behavioral patterns

5. The most important aspect of education is that without it all learning comes to a stop. We would literally be thrown back in time to before there was reading or writing. Literacy is important because it makes us who we are. It makes us individual, and distinct. Literacy is the key to all learning and the path to the future. Moreover, the advantages of literacy go on forever, but one more example of how literacy helps us is that without it we are nothing in today’s world. Being illiterate in today’s world often means low paying jobs, little to no respect from our peers, and the constant question of how long will I be able to work here. Being literate gives us advantages; being illiterate gives us none, it only gives us obstacles.


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