Why is Literacy Important?

Reading with meaning is the foundational skill upon which all others skills are built, and it’s arguably the most important skill children learn in primary school. Language, literature and communication are crucial for social cohesion, as well as for the development of children’s imagination, empathy and critical thinking skills.

All academic performance over the course of a child’s lifetime depends on early literacy development. If reading is not mastered early on, progress in schooling is restricted.

Infographic: importance of reading for pleasure

A handy infographic that illustrates why reading for pleasure can make a significant contribution to improving literacy in South Africa.

The benefits of literacy

Improved literacy can contribute to economic growth; reduce poverty; reduce crime; promote democracy; increase civic engagement; prevent HIV/AIDS and other diseases through information provision; enhance cultural diversity through literacy programmes in minority languages; lead to lower birth rates as a result of increased education; and confer personal benefits such as increased self-esteem, confidence and empowerment. 

Literacy and the Future

Education – formal primary, secondary, vocational, and higher – is impossible without first acquiring basic literacy. Nor is it possible, without literacy, to teach knowledge, attitudes and skills that are subsumed under non-formal education. Functional literacy (with its focus typically on economic functions), civic literacy (with its interest in political education), adult basic education and training as well as adult continuing education, all must teach literacy to make their pupils, self-learning, independent students.

Illiteracy is a threat to democracy

Not only the economy will suffer from a labour force that is poorly educated but our democracy itself will also be poorer if citizens cannot enjoy their civil and political rights meaningfully in the absence of a culture of reading, and reading with comprehension.

It is impossible to exaggerate the stakes. A deliberative and participatory model of democracy presupposes a critical mass of citizens who read, and who do so with comprehension.


The economic impact of illiteracy

Illiteracy breeds exclusion in every area of society, and it comes with a hefty price tag. In 2010, it was estimated that illiteracy costs South Africa R450 billion each year. “In a cross-country growth model, poor quality schooling emerges as the variable requiring the most urgent policy attention to sustain and improve South Africa’s economic development. Both microeconomic and macroeconomic estimates suggest that with a more typical level of school performance South Africa’s GDP would be 23% to 30% higher than it currently is.”