Shaping the literacy agenda from a lifelong learning perspective

Ulrike Hanemann
UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL)



Abstract – Within a lifelong learning framework, literacy and numeracy are viewed as part of a set of basic skills which are indispensable for full participation in society and form the core of basic education. However, this view also involves major challenges in developing a common understanding of how to approach literacy (and numeracy) as a continuum, as a lifelong and life wide learning process, and as a task that will cut across all of the education targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 as well as the other 16 SDGs over the next 15 years. The vision of “lifelong literacy” supports integrated and holistic approaches. 

While a vibrant debate can be observed on the “right mix” and proficiency levels, there is a broad consensus that literacy and numeracy are crucial components of a set of essential, foundational or general skills and competencies for the 21st century. These are essential for performing daily tasks, leading healthy lives, finding work, engaging in social and political activities, and independent learning. Strong literacy skills are associated with a range of valuable and desirable development outcomes including access to decent work (see St. Clair 2010; UNESCO 2016; UIL 2016). They have the potential to enhance people’s ability to interpret and transform their realities in the pursuit of their goals. Moreover, they provide a basis for many other learning and training opportunities.

Although the notion of literacy has evolved over the past decade towards a more nuanced concept of literacy as a learning continuum comprising different proficiency levels, arriving at a global consensus on the definition is still a challenge. The emphasis on the need to contextualise literacy and frame it as a social practice – what is required to be “literate” can differ depending on the context and what an individual aspires to do with his or her reading and writing skills – has led to a certain degree of relativity of the literacy concept. In addition, a broader understanding of literacy and numeracy as part of a set of basic skills has also opened the door to a proliferation of new combinations of the term literacy, adding knowledge areas such as digital literacy (or literacies), ICT literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, environmental literacy, financial literacy, critical literacy, health literacy and legal literacy, among many others. While a number of these areas are closely interrelated with the ability to read, write, compute and communicate, and others are adding important components by doing justice to new technological developments, some creations of terminology are in fact contributing to watering down the essence of the term “literacy”. This conceptual confusion complicates the tasks of formulating clear policy goals and assessing and monitoring literacy outcomes and progress.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recently adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN 2015), and in particular SDG 4 – the Education 2030 Framework for Action (FFA) “Towards inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all” (WEF 2015) – frame this debate in a new perspective. Education 2030 emphasises a holistic and lifelong learning approach. Addressing literacy within a truly lifelong learning vision requires a deeper understanding of “literacy” and “basic skills” in theory, policy and practice. This endeavour involves tackling a number of challenges, including the creation of a consensus on what we mean by “literacy” and “basic skills” in the 21st century. We need to broaden the vision vis-á-vis rapid changes in an increasingly complex world, and operationalise literacy and basic skills from a lifelong learning perspective as agreed upon at the global level.

“Addressing literacy within a truly lifelong learning vision requires a deeper understanding of “literacy” and “basic skills” in theory, policy and practice.”

Seeking conceptual clarity

The term “literacy” usually refers to the ability to deal with written text. Numeracy, as mediated by written material, is often added as a complement (or even perceived as a component) of literacy. Yet, SDG Target 4.6 – “By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy” – explicitly refers to numeracy as a “key skill”. Increasingly there is also mention of language skills, in recognition of the fact that most people live in linguistically diverse contexts and need to communicate – orally and in writing – in different languages and scripts. In addition, major cross-country surveys of adult skills (i.e. the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies [PIAAC]; OECD 2013) have started to include “problem solving in technology-rich environments” in their assessment frameworks. This recognises the fact that the ability to use digital technology, communication tools and networks through information and communication technologies (ICTs) is indispensable in the context of the 21st century.

However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to draw clear lines to define the scope of literacy. This is mainly due to three reasons: (1) the diversity of possible practical uses of literacy enabling individuals and collectives to pursue their goals; (2) literacy being associated with varying contexts which evolve and change over time; and (3) literacy being closely intertwined with language, culture, communication, knowledge production, critical thinking, opinions, ideas, problem solving and independent learning, just to mention a few dimensions determining the complexity of literacy in the 21st century.

Becoming literate does not only involve knowledge (e.g. of the alphabet, script and language) and skills (e.g. reading fluency and comprehension), but also touches on attitudes, dispositions and motivation (e.g. confident and self-sufficient learners are more likely to use their literacy skills broadly) as well as on values (e.g. being able to critically assess the purpose of a message or to responsibly use social media to interact with different audiences). In short, literacy refers to the (cap)ability of putting knowledge, skills, attitudes and values into action effectively when dealing with (handwritten, printed or digital) text in the context of ever-changing demands. Therefore, it is more precise to denote literacy as a competency or even a set of competencies instead of simply a skill. While in many countries (and languages) there is no clear distinction between “skills” and “competencies” (e.g. Francophone countries), and consequently both terms are often used interchangeably, a number of countries have started to refer to literacy as an “essential skill” (e.g. Canada), a “basic skill” (e.g. UK), a “key competence” (e.g. OECD in PIAAC), or even “literacy capability” (e.g. Australia).

There is a tension between the increasing complexity of literacy and the need to use a terminology which is clear and intelligible to everybody. While acknowledging the “plurality” of literacy (UNESCO 2004) and literacy practices, its multidimensionality and dynamics as a social practice, and its increasing complexity in a fast-changing and highly inequitable world, there is a risk of contributing to confusion and dilution of the core meaning when using the term “literacy” metaphorically to designate basic competencies or skills in senses other than those directly concerned with written text (Lind 2008). Therefore, it is advisable to limit the use of the term to those practices which are related to written language (script, print, or digital) as a means of communication.

Expanding the vision

The acceptance of the notion of literacy as a learning continuum comprising different proficiency levels has been one of the most significant developments in the conceptualisation of literacy over the past decade. This understanding of literacy rejects the simple dichotomy of “literate” versus “illiterate” which is still used in statistical reports on “literacy rates” or “illiteracy rates” which are often based on estimates instead of being measured through direct testing. Instead, this understanding perceives literacy as a continuum of proficiency levels spanning a range of different uses. While the required proficiency levels and how people apply reading and writing skills depend on specific contexts, the minimum literacy threshold to be reached by all citizens of a country needs to be established at the policy level, and it must evolve over time.

“The acceptance of the notion of literacy as a learning continuum comprising different proficiency levels has been one of the most significant developments in the conceptualisation of literacy over the past decade.”

At the global level, the explanatory text for SDG Target 4.6 establishes “proficiency levels of functional literacy and numeracy skills that are equivalent to levels achieved at successful completion of basic education” (WEF 2015: 15). This corresponds to the level envisaged in Education for All (EFA) Goal 4 (“improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015 […] and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults”; WEF 2000: 16). While the adjective “functional” does not really contribute to conceptual precision and is a somewhat unnecessary qualifier (literacy is always “functional” since it equips people with skills/competencies which allow them to “function”), the statement on the required competency level – basic education – has major implications: it establishes some kind of minimum literacy and numeracy threshold to be achieved by all.

This ambitious goal involves expanding the vision of literacy. It requires continuity of learning processes beyond literacy at the elementary level. Literacy and numeracy, alongside with other basic skills, are situated at the heart of basic education. They are developed in a progression of competency levels which range from reading with understanding a simple sentence to performing higher-order tasks around complex text and all kind of graphic representations. Instead of short literacy courses, it is necessary to offer comprehensive youth and adult basic education and training programmes which respond to (changing) social and economic development needs and contexts.

According to an operational definition offered by UNESCO, basic education covers notions such as fundamental, elementary and primary/secondary education; comprises at least nine years and progressively extends to twelve years (in formal education); prepares the learner for further education, for an active life and citizenship; meets basic learning needs including learning to learn, the acquisition of numeracy, literacy and scientific and technological knowledge as applied to daily life; is directed to the full development of the human personality; develops the capability for comprehension and critical thinking; and it inculcates the respect for human rights and values, notably human dignity, solidarity, tolerance, democratic citizenship and a sense of justice and equity. In addition, equivalent basic education needs to be offered for youth and adults who did not have the opportunity or possibility to receive and complete basic education at the appropriate age (UNESCO 2007).

The understanding of literacy reflected in SDG Target 4.6 is guided by this broad vision of basic education, which includes basic skills, and is at the same time supported by the lifelong learning vision.

Advancing literacy from a lifelong learning perspective

Lifelong learning is becoming increasingly important as a key organising principle for all forms of education and learning in a rapidly changing world. While learning is an absolute necessity for everyone, it is particularly important for disadvantaged individuals and groups who have been excluded from, or failed to acquire basic competencies through, formal schooling.

The vision of lifelong learning has evolved over the past few decades to become a constant feature in 21st-century policy discourse. Based on emancipatory, humanistic and democratic values, the concept of lifelong learning is rooted in the integration of learning and living, covering learning activities for people of all ages, in all life contexts (e.g. at home, at school, in the community and in the workplace) and through formal, non-formal and informal modalities which together meet a wide range of learning needs and demands (UNESCO 2014: 2). Furthermore, the vision of lifelong learning supports the idea of building bridges between different components, actors, institutions, processes, life spheres and life phases to develop holistically designed learning systems.

The recognition that learning never stops over a person’s lifetime also applies to literacy learning: the acquisition and development of literacy takes place before, during and after primary school. The same is true for life-wide learning taking place at home, at work, at school and in other spaces in the community. In other words, the development of reading and writing skills should be closely associated with activities which are relevant – or even essential – for human development. Instead of aiming for the “eradication of illiteracy”, ensuring the achievement of literacy and numeracy for all entails the development of “literate families”, “literate communities” and “literate societies”.

“Instead of aiming for the “eradication of illiteracy”, ensuring the achievement of literacy and numeracy for all entails the development of “literate families”, “literate communities” and “literate societies”.”

The vision of “lifelong literacy” supports integrated approaches to teaching and learning literacy and numeracy, such as family literacy, intergenerational learning, and literacy embedded in practical skills training and income-generating activities. Such approaches bring literacy closer to people’s lives and the different purposes for which they need or want to read, write, calculate and communicate.

The declared intention of SDG Target 4.6 emphasises the necessity to provide literacy programmes which are responsive to the needs and contexts of learners “within the framework of lifelong learning” (WEF 2015: 15). This implies that learning and using literacy and numeracy skills has to be perceived and dealt with as a continuous and context-bound process which takes place within and outside of educational settings across all ages and generations (throughout life). As a life-wide learning process, literacy needs to be addressed in combination with the development of other skills and competencies. Linking literacy with development issues within an inter-sectorial approach seems to be the most promising way to contribute to the achievement of most of the SDGs.

Indeed, literacy can only unfold its full potential to “transform our world” if it is conceptualised and operationalised from a lifelong learning perspective. This involves: (1) understanding literacy as a continuous learning process which takes place across all ages and generations; (2) ensuring that literacy and numeracy are achieved at proficiency levels that are equivalent to those achieved at successful completion of basic education; (3) embedding literacy in or combining it with the development of other skills and integrating it into other development activities; (4) integrating literacy in sector-wide reforms towards lifelong learning systems; and (5) ensuring that literacy is part of national or sub-national development strategies (Hanemann 2015).


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About the author

Ulrike Hanemann is a Senior Programme Specialist at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) in Hamburg, Germany, focusing on research, capacity development and networking in the field of literacy, non formal education and adult learning from a perspective of lifelong learning. She coordinates UIL’s literacy and basic skills programme. Before joining UNESCO in 2001, she worked for ten years as a lecturer and advisor at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in León.