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International Literacy Day: what recent youth literacy data tell us

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ImageImageAs a former public school teacher, I have a special place in my heart for literacy issues.  I know first-hand both the joy of reading with children and the very real pains that struggling with literacy can leave on a child’s life.

In light of my professional exposure to this topic and the fact that yesterday was International Literacy Day, I decided to take a look at the World Bank’s literacy data to get an idea of how literacy rates worldwide are progressing or still facing challenges. 
The theme of this year’s International Literacy Day 2014 is “Literacy and Sustainable Development.”  For developing countries in particular, literacy is one of the key elements needed to promote sustainable development as it empowers people to make the right decisions in the areas of educational growth and socioeconomic development.

Worldwide youth literacy rate at 89%, compared to 83% in 1990
Youth literacy rates around the world are at an all-time high.  In fact, they are up 6 percentage points in the last two decades alone (from 83% in 1990 to 89% in 2010).  However, literacy rates continue to vary widely by region, country, and gender.  Below, I break down the data to reveal where children are becoming the most and least literate.

Figure 1
Data from World Bank
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While literacy rates worldwide are increasing, there remain variations both across and within regions.  In 2010,  Europe and Central Asia held the highest youth literacy rates in the world, with 99.7% of its young people reported as literate.  Within this same region lies  Moldova, which reported 100% of its youth population as literate in 2012. ​

70% literacy rate in Africa yet wide differences among countries
In contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa reported only 70% of this region’s young people as literate in 2010.  This region continues to see a wide range in literacy rates, ranging from Niger’s 24% literacy rate to 99% literacy rates in South Africa and the island nation of Seychelles in 2012.   
Through my time in the classroom, I learned that education-related data mean very little, unless interpreted alongside baseline data.  A child who formerly struggled with picture books and has since moved on to chapter books is very different from a child who could easily read chapter books all along.  Progress truly is the most important factor, whether it be a student’s individual progress in reading or a country’s progress in increasing its literacy rates. 

In South Asia, 79% literate in 2010; 59% in 1990
With that same mindset, I set out to compare current literacy data to that of previous decades to take a closer look at regional progress or lack of progress, as well as any revealing gender-related trends and advancements.  South Asia has experienced enormous growth in youth literacy rates in recent decades.  In South Asia, 79% of children were literate in 2010, compared to 59% in 1990, a 20% increase.    
Figure 2

Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole experienced modest growth in its youth literacy rates, growing 5 percentage points from 65% in 1990 to 70% in 2010.  However, growth rates within this region are once again quite diverse.  Guinea-Bissau showed immense progress, growing its youth literacy rates by 15 percentage points (from 59% in 2000 to 74% in 2010).  On the other hand, Cote d’Ivoire’s literacy rate fell by 13 percentage points (61% in 2000 compared to 48% in 2012).  

Gender Differences in Literacy Rates
As the world’s literacy rates improve, it is important to ensure that this progress is shared equally among males and females.  In 2010, Europe and Central Asia succeeded in delivering high levels of youth literacy across genders, with rates of 99.7% literacy amongst male youths and 99.6% literacy amongst female youths.  Two countries with this region, Moldova (100% youth literacy rate) and Poland (99.99% youth literacy rate), reported virtually identical youth literacy rates for both males and females.  The East Asia and Pacific region exhibited similarly high rates of youth literacy (98.9% in 2010), as well as high rates of gender equality (98.9% literate male youths, 98.8% literate female youths).
Figure 3

Latin America and the Caribbean is the region in the world where female youths are equally or slightly more literate than male youths.  In 2010, 97.6% of male youths and 98.0% of female youths were literate in this region.
While overall progress in South Asia is impressive, literacy rates remain unequally distributed across genders.  In 2010, 86% of male youths were literate in the region, compared to 73% of female youths.  This makes for a difference of 13% in favor of males throughout the region.  Similarly, the data shows that Cote d’Ivoire is in need of continued work in this area, with 58% of male youths literate and 39% of female youths (a difference of nearly 20%).  In the case of Niger, the country reported 35% literate male youths and 15% literate female youths in 2012, a 20% difference.

Steady Progress
In analyzing the above youth literacy data, I feel encouraged by the ongoing progress. Alongside these growth rates, the data also show that there is continued room for improvement in certain regions and countries.  While certain regions display a significant gap in literacy rates across gender, youth literacy gender equality remains quite high in most regions and inspires much hope for continued equality in the coming decades. 
Data Limitations
Literacy estimates from  the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s Institute for Statistics (UIS) are based on different types of data, including self-declaration data and standardized tests, in addition to variables such as lengths of school attendance and levels of completion in few cases. The information presented here includes data for some high income countries like Singapore, but not OECD members.
Indicators and codes used in this post:
·       Literacy rate, youth female (% of females ages 15-24)  SE.ADT.1524.LT.FE.ZS
·       Literacy rate, youth male (% of males ages 15-24)  SE.ADT.1524.LT.MA.ZS
·       Literacy rate, youth total (% of people ages 15-24)  SE.ADT.1524.LT.ZS

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