The power of literacy

Illiteracy, the inability to read and write, affects 775 million people around the world, nearly two-thirds of whom are women. Literacy is a fundamental human right — one that opens doors to other rights, to empowerment, and to integration; it is essential for other forms of learning, for health and security, and for personal development. As the examples from São Paulo, Mexico City, and Bogotá show, literacy is more than just reading and writing: it also includes digital literacy, as well as a culture of reading. The following articles show a variety of approaches to combatting illiteracy, including national campaigns, the diagnosis of learning disabilities, and digital literacy initiatives. Read on to see examples from Mumbai, Dhaka, Bogotá, São Paulo, Mexico City, and Cairo, and then join the conversation in the comments below.

São Paulo
Mexico City
Carlin Carr

Mumbai's municipal schools get first program to diagnose learning disabilities

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager


Mumbai's public classrooms are a manifestation of the complexities that exist outside the school doors. Students suffer from poor nutrition, unstable family conditions, and economic pressures. Since many parents themselves are illiterate, few can offer homework help or guidance to their children. Not surprisingly, in this challenging environment, learning disabilities, one of the most invisible disabilities, go essentially undiagnosed. The result is that many students struggle through school with few extra services. In time, many drop out of school, abandoning their studies, causing a cycle of illiteracy and unemployment.

Poojaa Joshi, founder of the NGO Mimaansa, has targeted two schools in the Thane district of Mumbai in order to change all this. She says that an estimated 15 percent of students in Indian schools have a learning disability — the majority of which will never be identified. Mimaansa is the only NGO of its kind focusing on Mumbai's municipal schools. "Government schools lack skilled facilitators to address the issue," she says. "The target community is such that there is little or no awareness about learning disabilities."

Students with learning disabilities often struggle in class, growing increasingly frustrated with affected aspects of learning. Behavioral issues often follow, since focusing on work becomes difficult. In this situation, parents who have never heard of learning disabilities begin to label the child as a "problem" child. Few testing options are available to diagnose these obstacles to learning.

With Mimaansa, Joshi has set out to provide exemplary remediation and counseling services to underprivileged students with learning disabilities. Mimaansa focuses on early intervention, and statistics show that in the program's first year and a half, 180 students have benefited, both academically and in their confidence levels toward classroom work. "Parents are happy with the performance of their children. And last academic year, we had 66 students fare better in math and 25 who showed progress in language," says Joshi of the program's early achievements.

An equally big success for Mimaansa has been that teachers have started reaching out to bring the program to their school. Joshi hopes to start replicating the program in other schools around the city, focusing on training for teachers, increasing awareness among parents and school administrators, and evaluating the success of students. The Thane Municipal Commission has supported Mimaansa's efforts, a necessary partnership in moving forward.

"One of the biggest challenges," says Joshi, "is convincing teachers and parents that their child is normal but just has a different style of learning." Mimmaansa hopes its program will break through some of these stereotypes and carve out a new and brighter future for these students.

Photo credit: Satish Krishnamurthy



It was interesting to read all the articles and understand the diverse challenges faced by cities in order to improve the reach and quality of basic education: Some cities’ main challenge is still focused on reducing the high illiteracy rates. Some other cities that are already advanced in this aspect are facing problems with quality issues that go beyond basic reading and writing, such as being able to ensure dwellers can operate computers and face the complex challenges of today’s digitalized world.

I think that there some additional challenges worth highlighting, including the need for better education for teachers in order to be better educators. No matter the efforts to improve education in various cities, if teachers and professors aren’t trained as well, it is difficult to improve the overall quality of their teachings. An additional challenge, as Carlin points out in her article, is the importance of educators to strengthen alternative methods of education for disabled children and other children, who might not be disabled, but don’t follow the standardized methods of education.

Carlin, I really liked the article about the initiative to diagnose learning disabilities in Mumbai. Is there available documentation on how the organization is carrying out this work? Is there a specific methodology being used? How are teachers being trained to spot learning disabilities?

Carlin Carr's picture

Catalina, one of the big issues is that students with Learning Disabilities (LDs) are being identified too late, mainly because teachers, parents and administrators are unaware of the signs that a student may be having difficulties. Mimaansa trains teachers to look for identifying factors in children, including delays in speech and delay of difficulty in motor development. Difficulties show up differently in various subject areas as well (ie, reading comprehension and mathematical calculations).

Mimaansa has a four-part program that starts with outreach to "teach, identify and remediate" students with LD. They also work on school development to build capacity within the target schools. Simultaneously, the program works on building child motivation, despite their difficulties, and helping parents to provide better guidance to their child.

Jorge Bela's picture

As Cata points out, the articles this week show that — with the possible exception of Cairo — the interest in government an NGOs is shifting from literacy to post-literacy issues. As literacy rates come closer to 100%, it becomes obvious that being able to read is just the beginning. Rising awareness of learning disabilities — these students were often labeled as lazy or careless until their conditions were identified —, the need to focus on certain groups, or digital literacy are the issues identified by the URB.IM community. This is not to underestimate the importance of the remaining people who still cannot read, but concepts such as functional literacy or digital literacy are becoming increasingly important.

Thanks Jorge for bringing up the fact that Cairo is different from the other cities in this regard. I was actually really disheartened when I read your comment but when I reread all of articles, I realized that Cairo is behind in regards to achieving even basic education for its inhabitants. Now, more than ever with the ongoing political uncertainty, the implications of high illiteracy rates will have a huge impact for the economic and social development of the country. What does this mean in regards to a new constitution? How do politicians share and explain their policies to voters?

However the example from Cairo differs again this week because the solution does not only come from the interest of the "government" or "NGOs" has you mentioned, but there is a vested interest from the private sector. In the same way that development targets move forward from basic literacy to post-literacy issues, social development actors have also progressed to include the private sector. While it could be argued that the private sector is seeking to tap into new markets to increase their bottom line, one cannot argue the many other indirect benefits that can be achieved by increasing the literacy rate in Cairo and other areas of Egypt. Right now everyone in Cairo is hoping it comes sooner rather than later.

Howaida Kamel
Community Manager, Cairo |

María Fernanda Carvallo's picture

Esta semana aborda un tema fundamental, pues bien considero que la educación básica es la base que abre puertas para generar diversas estrategias de vida en poblaciones vulnerables. Por ejemplo, un ciclo vicioso presente en las comunidades rurales y semiurbanas es la falta de habilidades para poder obtener un empleo, pues el entorno mismo no promueve la preparación en la gente. En este sentido, la lecto-escritura es una herramienta para que la gente pueda desarrollar otros tipos de actividades que generen un ingreso para los hogares. No obstante en México uno de los problemas de la medición del analfabetismo es que no distingue los niveles de esta habilidad, pues con solo saber leer y escribir una persona ya no se considera analfabeta, sin embargo hay otros factores socioculturales que se encuentran relacionados, como es el uso de las lenguas indígenas frente a una economía dominada por el castellano. Así mismo, el analfabetismo se acompaña de la desigualdad en el acceso a la educación media y superior para que las personas continúen su preparación y fortalezcan sus habilidades.

Katy Fentress's picture

I was heartened to read that South American cities have gotten past the challenge of illiteracy and, as Jorge puts it, moved on to post-literacy issues.

Kenya has, over the past decades, managed to reach an almost 90% literacy rate which is an important figure. However the quality of education has also suffered and teachers are often unprepared and uncomfortable teaching in English which is the most common language taught in schools. With illiteracy becoming less of a pressing problem, the time has come for the country's decision makers to focus on how to really improve the overall quality of education in order to help form a generation of intelligent, dynamic and above all critical citizens.

The Sao Paulo "Minha Biblioteca" initiative is really important and I wish there was more projects of this kind around the world. Reading need not be the preserve of the well educated classes but if a culture of reading is entirely absent, it is really difficult to pull people in. It saddens me when I see how many people don't read books as I feel that their importance for individual and group development cannot be underestimated. One of the great aspects of the English language is the huge volume of books that get published for people of all ages. In order to get kids reading there need to be books that are relevant to them yet often these books are not published in large enough quantities. In Kenya people are lucky enough to have English as one of the two main languages yet there is a severe shortage of Swahili language children's books (with the exception of Christian ones) which is a shame.

Reading books helps develop critical thinking and imagination... without which new generations of leaders cannot hope to tackle the problems that face cities today!

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

Hello fellow commenters,

I, too, truly believe that knowing how to read and write leads to securing a life of security, development, and awareness. It leads to having the knowledge and mindset that creates a better world in every aspect. I am looking for the opportunity to teach classes in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I would love to teach the youth and adults of literature, science, history, chemistry, and more. This, I plan to teach the ones in poverty. My fathers side of the family have always lacked in the resources that would lead them to continuing their education, growing up. Therefor, I would really like to educate the poor. If anyone out there is in an organization or a group of volunteers or, anything really that provides education to the poor in Dhaka, please comment below. I am seeking this opportunity to gain experience that I can include in papers, and to start my journey on to helping the world's poverty.

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