A Lifetime of Loving Reading
“I can’t remember not knowing how to read,” says Jennifer Young.
“I just know that since I was a little girl, reading has been the most important thing to me. As a child, my collection of Nancy Drew books was my most prized possession.”
Today, Jennifer is Director of Global Social Impact Programs at Pearson.
She oversees the company’s social impact campaigns, which are focused on driving solutions for the most pressing issues in education.
Pearson’s flagship campaign is called Project Literacy.
More than 95 organizations from around the world have joined the effort.
Together, they work to raise awareness of the global illiteracy crisis, scale successful solutions, and promote further investment in further research and innovation.
Their ultimate aim: make significant and sustainable advances in literacy so that by 2030, no child will be born at risk of poor literacy.
An Invisible Curse
“To be honest,” Jennifer says, “I didn’t grasp the scale of the illiteracy crisis until I stepped into my current role.”
“I think, like many people, I took my ability to read and write for granted.”
In addition to widespread unawareness of the global illiteracy crisis, Jennifer says there are two other reasons why it is a particularly difficult challenge to tackle.
“We call it ‘the invisible curse,’ because you can’t see it the way you can see poverty or hunger.”
“But it’s no less urgent.”
And, Jennifer says, the consequences of illiteracy are tremendous.
Research shows that 1 in 10 people in the world today are illiterate.
“Literacy is more than just knowing how to read and write. It’s the ability to access education, to gain employment and increase one’s earning potential, improve one’s health, and engage in civic life.”
“As digital skills become more critical and technologies become better, faster,” Jennifer says, “what it means to be literate is changing rapidly.”
“All that is it say, literacy has never been more important than it is today,” Jennifer says.
What the Research Tells Us
“In the last 25 years, we’ve seen disappointing progress in human literacy,” says Brendan O’Connor, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Through his latest research, commissioned by Pearson, Brendan explores comparisons of human literacy and machine literacy.
He is especially focused on human literacy levels in the midst of today’s never-before-seen technological progress.
“But, there have been huge gains in linguistic performance—by computers.”
Top Notch Technology In Action
Although researchers refer to both things as “literacy,” comparing human literacy to machine literacy is not exactly apples to apples, Brendan says.
“Computers don’t have a deep understanding of context and nuance like humans do,” he says, “but they can perform many basic language tasks better than millions of humans who are illiterate.”
Brendan says that many of us probably take advantage of such tasks every day.
“Any time you use Google on your computer, the search engine ‘reads’ your search query, then ‘reads’ the entire web and matches your query with relevant web pages.”
Two other examples of improved computer performance: using a computer to translate text from one language to another, or asking Siri for directions.
Supporting, Not Replacing Traditional Teaching
Brendan says he’s enthusiastic about future technological advances in language processing—especially the benefits they can offer to learners.
“Better technology means we can develop better software programs that help teach humans to read and write.”
But, Brendan says, the effort to improve machine literacy should never replace efforts to improve human literacy.
“It’s less important for us to do arithmetic now that it was before calculators were invented, but it’ still important to learn basic math.”
“The same rule should apply to literacy,” he says.
Jennifer Young says she’s proud of the progress Project Literacy has made thus far, thanks to researchers like Brendan, and partners in other fields as well.
“We have individuals and organizations from across the spectrum—education, health, energy, environment, agriculture, government, nonprofit, business—joining the conversation because the idea behind Project Literacy is so resonant.”
“We’ve built a creative, collaborative movement.”
“There’s a lot more we can—and will—do.”