The European declaration of literacy as a basic right

Image: ESB Professional /

People who cannot read properly encounter severe difficulties in modern society. They fail in school, have difficulties finding a satisfying job, risk poverty and social exclusion, and – in my city of Berlin – would find it hard even to buy a ticket for the public transport system from our complicated machines.

I find it alarming that, in Europe, one in five 15-year-olds and nearly 55 million adults lack basic literacy skills, limiting their opportunities for cultural and civil participation, lifelong learning and personal growth. It is even more alarming that there has been little improvement in literacy in the last 10 years, as the international surveys PIRLS and PISA demonstrate. 

The European Commission has reacted to this challenge in two ways:

First, in 2011 – 2012 a High Level Group of Experts on Literacy was established, in which I was member. We concluded that literacy problems should not only be regarded as an educational issue but as a wider issue to which society as a whole must respond. In our final report we make a wide range of suggestions for various stakeholders in diverse policy fields.

Second, the EU funded the European Literacy Policy Network (ELINET), a group of 78 literacy experts – researchers and practitioners, professionals, volunteers and policymakers – from 28 European countries, who developed a wide range of theoretical concepts and practical solutions to foster literacy development from cradle to grave. A task force of ELINET¹, which I chaired, outlined a European Declaration of Literacy as a basic right. Fundamental to this is that:

Everyone in Europe has the right to acquire literacy. EU Member States should ensure that people of all ages, regardless of social class, religion, ethnicity, origin and gender, are provided with the necessary resources and opportunities to develop sufficient and sustainable literacy skills in order to effectively understand and use written communication, be it handwritten, in print or in digital form.

For over 50 years now, literacy has been recognised as a human right in several international declarations and initiatives. However, our ELINET group regards these universal declarations as too unspecific. This is why we outlined 11 conditions which are required to put this basic literacy right into practice:

  1. Young children are given encouragement at home in their language and literacy acquisition. Especially important is to read books with them from the first year of life.
  2. Parents should receive support in helping their children’s language and literacy acquisition, by providing them with accessible guidance and, where needed, with family literacy programmes. 
  3. Affordable high quality preschool, or kindergarten, is required to foster children’s language and emergent literacy development. 
  4. High-quality literacy instruction for children, adolescents and adults must be regarded as a core mission of all educational institutions.
  5. All teachers receive effective initial teacher education and professional development in literacy teaching in order to be well prepared for the challenge of raising literacy standards in the classroom.
  6. Digital competence is promoted across all age groups. 
  7. Reading for pleasure is actively promoted and encouraged.
  8. Libraries are accessible and well resourced. I wish this had already been the case in my childhood: Being raised in post-war times it was always a big disappointment that children were only allowed to borrow two books every two weeks from the public library. 
  9. Children and young people who struggle with literacy receive appropriate specialist support. 
  10. Adults are supported to develop the literacy skills necessary for them to participate fully in society.
  11. Policymakers, professionals, parents and communities work together to ensure equal access to literacy by closing the gaps in social and educational levels.

The full text of the declaration provides more details and examples of how to realise these conditions. The short version of the declaration is available in 22 languages on the ELINET website, together with a video clip in English.

I believe that is never too late to address the literacy challenge. Let us all look to play our part, whether as education professionals, parents or policymakers. Too much is at stake for us not to do so.

Dr. Renate Valtin, Professor Emerita of Humboldt University Berlin, member of the Reading Hall of Fame, is presently chairperson of the European Literacy Associations of the International Literacy Associations and belongs to the German PIRLS team.

  1. Members of the Task Force were: Renate Valtin (chair), Viv Bird, Greg Brooks, Bill Brozo, Christine Clement, Simone Ehmig, Christine Garbe, Maurice de Greef, Ulrike Hanemann, Kees Hammink, David Mallows, Fabio Nascimbeni, Sari Sulkunen, Giorgio Tamburlini.