Literacy as a Human Right

by Hannah Lank & Kate Butler

“Literacy, broadly conceived as the basic knowledge and skills needed by all in a rapidly changing world, is a fundamental human right.” So reads Resolution 11 of UNESCO’s 1997 Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning. Literacy affects all aspects of daily life, from the economic to the social, political to cultural. While we think of Canada as a country that has high literacy rates, in reality, the situation is more nuanced. For example, newcomers and Indigenous peoples often have lower literacy rates than the general population; StatsCanada reports that “Aboriginal people have lower literacy and numeracy scores than their non-Aboriginal counterparts,” and newcomers also report lower literacy rates compared to their Canadian-born counterparts. Interestingly, these literacy rates do not appear to increase with time in Canada, as research suggests that more recent immigrants tend to have higher literacy rates than established immigrants, although it is not immediately clear why. Furthermore, while some individuals may be literate, they may not be functionally literate, i.e. literate at a high enough level to function in society and contribute to their own personal development and the development of the community. This is often the case for newcomers, who usually “automatically become functional illiterates when they migrate to [a new country].” While being literate in one language is helpful for being literate in other languages, literacy is also part of integration – without being able to read, it is hard to contribute to your community. UNESCO notes that over the course of 50 years, “the concept of literacy has evolved from basic reading, writing and numeracy skills to broader notions such as functional literacy and a foundation for lifelong learning.”

UNESCO has repeatedly advocated for literacy as a human right, with the 1975 Persepolis Declaration describing literacy as “a contribution to the liberation of man,” the 1997 Hamburg Declaration, and the 2006-2015 decade-long Literacy Initiative for Empowerment. While these initiatives have often focused on countries in Africa and Asia that have very low rates of literacy, they also apply to North American countries including Canada. Importantly, the right to literacy is closely tied to other rights and social issues. Since literacy is the ability to fluently read a particular text, if you can read, you have the ability to realize your other rights. Furthermore, the 1990 Jomtien World Declaration on Education for All identified the link between literacy and “combating violence, gender disparity and poverty.” Unfortunately, many literacy goals have not been achieved; the Jomtien Declaration failed to meet its goal of universal literacy by 2000 for reasons that appear to be mainly political and due to difficulties with coordination, but there is a notable lack of scholarship analyzing the failure of the Jomtien Declaration. 

Early literacy refers to the literacy education of children aged 0-6. This is a crucial age range because children in this demographic are learning the skills they need for the rest of their lives. According to the National Strategy for Early Literacy, there are four primary barriers to literacy that Canadian children face: (1) poor access to “high-quality early childhood education and care programs,” (2) poor access to libraries, (3) “the inability of many Canadian schools to identify and deal effectively with children who already lag behind their peers when they first enter school,” and (4) poor preparedness of teachers to teach literacy skills in the classroom. The National Strategy for Early Literacy calls for “universally available, high quality, affordable daycare/early learning centres” to ensure that all children have the opportunity to develop early literacy. The National Strategy also states that “improving the way reading and writing are taught in Canada is… the single most important consideration for increasing literacy outcomes for Canadian students.” One of the simplest ways to encourage early literacy is by reading to young children every day from birth, however according to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, “fewer than 70% of Canadian children between three to five years of age are read to on a daily basis.” One of the primary barriers to daily reading is poor access to books, which is closely tied to access to libraries. Furthermore, there is a correlation between literacy and schooling and between parental education level and literacy, particularly with respect to the mother’s education level.

StatsCanada also recognizes the importance of literacy, citing scientific research that indicates literacy is necessary for citizens to “take a full and equal role in social and political discourse: [illiterates] become less than equal members of society without the basic tools required to pursue their goals.” The language used to describe the effects of illiteracy is rights- and equality-based, emphasizing the link between literacy and the ability to be an equal citizen. 

At the international level, children and adults have the right to literacy. This is laid out in UN agreements and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), where literacy is a component of the broader right to education articulated in Article 28. While the right to literacy is a universal right, it manifests differently for adults and children, even though the right to education is a universal human right that applies to everyone, regardless of age. But it is undeniable that when children are literate, their opportunities and creativity expand, creating a snowball effect of development that cannot be replicated at any other age. According to the International Literacy Association (ILA), “teaching children to read opens up a world of possibilities for them. It builds their capacity for creative and critical thinking, expands their knowledge base, and develops their ability to respond with empathy and compassion to others.”

The ILA also recognizes that a child’s right to literacy is composed of many different sub-rights, including the right to choose what they read, the right to “supportive reading environments with knowledgeable literacy partners,” and the right to “read texts that mirror their experiences and languages, provide windows into the lives of others, and open doors into our diverse world,” among other sub-rights.

Very recently, there have been legal cases in the United States testing the claim of literacy as a constitutional right. In Detroit, Michigan, Gary B. v. Snyder claimed that “the state of Michigan… is depriving [some students] of their constitutional rights to liberty and non-discrimination by denying them access to basic literacy.” This is a case of first incidence, alleging that the U.S. Constitution must guarantee “the right to become literate…. because other rights in the Constitution necessarily require the ability to read.” In May 2020, the U.S. federal appeals court recognized literacy as a constitutional right, even though such a right is not explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution itself. While time will show the implications of this ruling, it currently stands as a landmark decision that could one day be replicated by Canadian courts. In fact, as recently as 2019, the Ontario Human Rights Commission began an inquiry into “potential human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system.” Notably, the inquiry is titled Right to Read, invoking rights-based language and hinting towards a recognized right to literacy. The results of the inquiry are expected to be released in the Fall of 2020.

 Literacy should be understood within a rights-based approach and among principles of inclusion for human development. The rationale for recognising literacy as a right is the set of benefits it confers on individuals, families, communities, and nations. As suggested in the UNCRC and Gary B. v. Snyder, the right to literacy is implicit in the right to education. Furthermore, it is explicitly recognised as a human right in many international conventions. Literacy is a pathway to other rights; it allows for the realisation of human rights more generally. As such, it is a tool in the rights toolkit, one that every individual deserves access to.


(4) Id.
(6)  Mona Motakef, “The Human Right to Education as a Right to Literacy in Germany,” 40 Convergence 143 (2007).
(8) Id
(9) See supra at 7.
(10) Id.
(11) Hiroshi Ito, “Jomtien to Jomtien: The Evolving Coordination Process of Education for All 1990-2011,” 5 International Education Studies 1 (2012).
(12) Donald G. Jamieson, “National Strategy for Early Literacy: Summary Report 2009,” Canadian Language & Literacy Research Network 2009.
(13) Id.
(14) Id.
(16) See supra at 17.
(18) Id.
(21) Id.
(22) Alia Wong, “Students in Detroit Are Suing the State Because They Weren’t Taught to Read,” The Atlantic (July 6, 2018).
(23) Id.

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