Future tense: where’s literacy heading next?

Mark McCusker, CEO of TextHelp, talks the meaning of literacy, and what the implications of the digital revolution are for the next generation

Yesterday was International Literacy Day, and as we celebrate the power of words, it’s time to explore how technology has reshaped the true meaning of ‘literacy’…  and to ask what it might look like for the society of tomorrow.

Initiated by UNESCO in 1965, International Literacy Day (ILD) highlights the importance of literacy for individuals, communities and society as a whole.

Digital technology has transformed the way we live, work and learn. But while it’s created countless new opportunities for us to interact and share knowledge, this connected world has come at a price.

The web and social media remain out of reach for those without the raw skills or opportunity to access them. As a result, age-old societal inequalities are now joined by a new – and equally unwelcome – source of marginalisation: the digital divide.

Literacy (or lack of it) remains a stubborn challenge for three quarters of a billion adults who struggle to read and write. And it’s far from being a problem limited to countries blighted by severe poverty or conflict. In the UK, over 5 million adults are functionally illiterate, while in the US one in four children grow up without learning to read.

But before we can build solutions, maybe we need to start by asking what ‘literacy’ really means. That’s one of the big questions raised in ‘The Future of Literacy’ that’s brought together a panel of global experts from the worlds of technology, academia and philanthropy. 

The internet has nuanced this picture profoundly, and ‘Digital Literacy’ now characterises our ability to access, process and act on information in a range of online contexts.


There are two distinct dimensions to literacy. On one level, it’s about individuals using spoken and written elements of a person’s mother tongue, leveraging them to communicate and stimulate their own personal success and the success of others – whether that’s sharing an idea, having fun or making a worthwhile contribution to society.

At a deeper level, it’s about harnessing language to frame abstract thoughts and deconstruct them to use effectively at multiple levels. Hard skills, in other words, are only part of the story. Fundamentally, literacy is about articulating and sharing our own experience of life – and finding a connection with others.

The internet has nuanced this picture profoundly, and ‘Digital Literacy’ now characterises our ability to access, process and act on information in a range of online contexts.

Technology has revolutionised teaching and learning – and it’s also driving fundamental change in the world of work. As our report forecasts, there won’t be a single job in the next twenty years that doesn’t include some dimension of digital literacy.

Everything’s changing. Fast. It’s impossible to predict exactly what skills and tools will be needed for young people to thrive in decades to come. But we do know they’ll need to be literate in an even deeper sense of the word than we use currently. 

To learn more about the Future of Literacy Panel and the discussion, download the ‘Founding Principals’ Guide at www.texthelp.com/futureofliteracy.


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