Literacy for Democracy

I was taking a part in international conference „Literacy for Democracy”. Below you can find a report about it prepared by organizer and full recording.

The recording of the entire conference is available in Ukrainian, Polish and English on this website.

What impact does reading have on the strength of democracy in Ukraine, how does it develop the human brain, and what strategies can be used to build it? These and other questions were answered by participants in a conference organised by the Universal Reading Foundation under the title Literacy for Democracy International Conference.

Speakers from Ukraine, the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland presented different perspectives one after the other, in three languages, with simultaneous translation, live links to Kiyv, Boston and Los Angeles.

From the presidential palaces

The conference opened with a message from the Spouse of the President of the Republic of Poland, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, on the importance of reading for education. The First Lady emphasised that as a teacher she had the opportunity to observe the dynamic development of children through reading. Olga Budnyk, a member of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team of advisors, in a live link with Kiyv, emphasised the strategic importance of thinking about education in the context of Ukraine’s future.

History as a teacher

Oleksandr Tkachenko, Minister of Culture of Ukraine, stressed that critical thinking and the ability to subject information to rational evaluation, the ability to think independently are the foundations of democracy. With every book we read, we become different people; so let’s read for democracy! – he encouraged. The only Polish speaker was Dr Tomasz Makowski, Director of the Polish National Library, who gave a powerful speech set in Polish history, showing how the loss of 70% of library resources during the Second World War cast a shadow over reading in Poland to this day. People, communities and organisations need universal and equal access to books to develop socially, educationally, culturally, economically and in the spirit of democracy. – he stressed.

A poignant juxtaposition

Oleksandra Koval, Director of the Ukrainian Book Institute, presented a strategy for raising readership in Ukraine. She impressed the audience with the clarity of her vision, but presented frightening figures: 500 dilapidated libraries, only 130 functioning bookshops in the whole of Ukraine, one hundred million euros is the budget needed to implement the strategy, Ukrainians have two million… 98% of the budget is missing. A powerful juxtaposition to this sad picture was the presentation by Fiona Evans, Director of School Partnerships and member of the management team of the National Literacy Trust, UK. Evans outlined the NLT’s impressive activities, including in particular the Business Literacy Pledge project, which involves nearly 100 companies from a wide range of industries. A surprise was Lancome’s 'Write her Future’ project, in which the company trains women in literacy as a future competence. Reading is a social justice issue. It is about giving every child a chance. We need everyone to get involved: the public sector, the private sector and the NGO sector: together. – concluded Fiona Evans very emphatically.

The right to read

Margaritis Schinas, Vice-President of the European Commission, addressed a letter to the conference participants. Ukrainian culture is also a special target of Russia’s aggression – with hundreds of cultural sites destroyed or damaged since the start of the invasion. This is not collateral damage – this is a deliberate attempt to chip away at the rich architectural and cultural heritage that belongs to Ukraine, to its people, to its nation and to Ukraine’s – and Europe’s – identity. Maintaining access to education, preserving freedom of speech, cultural and artistic expression and protecting Ukraine’s cultural heritage is therefore a particular focus of the EU’s support to Ukraine. Winning this war is far more than a question of military might. The loss will already have been too great if we cannot protect Ukraine’s past – through its culture – or Ukraine’s future – through the education of its youth. The Commission’s support to Ukraine in both fields is unwavering. – wrote Vice-President Schinas. A powerful addition was the message from Dr Joerg Maas, President of Stiftung Lesen, Germany’s largest non-governmental organisation in the field of reading. Reading is an indispensable human right in a modern democracy. – Dr Maas said strongly.

A child’s brain is like a computer

A child’s brain is like a computer – the more data it has, the more connections it will make and the smarter it will be. – Professor Barry Zuckerman, the famous American paediatrician and co-founder of Reach Out And Read said opening his speech. He added that brain stimulation through reading with a parent contributes to maintaining more synaptic connections. Research has proven that it is the number of words a child is 'exposed’ to through reading that counts, but also, and very importantly, the conversation with the parent around the book. When children read books with someone they love, they will learn to love books, and that is the first step to reading. – emphasised Professor Zuckerman as he told the audience about his work in Bangladesh, with parents he did not understand, who could not read – and yet were able to enjoy a moment together with their child over a book and thus stimulate their brain. Zuckerman concluded by underlining that children who had survived disasters need three things above all else: parents’ attention, their closeness, and the repetitive rituals of daily life – all of which can be given to a child through reading together.

The conversation we are having today is absolutely crucial to the future of us all, and we are honoured to be a part of it – Cassie Chadderton, head of World Book Day, moved the audience from her first words. She went on to outline the unprecedented reach her organisation achieves through the collaboration of the whole industry. 80% of all children in the UK participated in World Book Day 2022 celebrations organised by the Charity. Chadderton stressed that their mission is to build reading based on fun and enjoyment – only this approach can build readers for the long term. She showed a very strong picture of a massive event possible thanks to the collaboration of many actors of the market setting quite a target for the audience.

Demolished schools in Ukraine

In strong contrast to the UK situation, a presentation prepared by Anna Novosad, former Minister of Education of Ukraine, now head of the SavED Foundation, showed attendees poignant images of demolished schools, children learning in shelters, in the underground stations, by candlelight. Nearly three and a half thousand schools in Ukraine are completely or partially ruined. The needs are enormous.

And finally: A Reading Warrior

The neuroscience representative, Professor Maryanne Wolf from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) began her presentation after 5:00 PM Polish time, but the passion with which she talked about the impact of reading on brain development and democracy roused everyone potentially tired from hours of listening. Professor Wolf emphasised fervently that reading is a human right; she showed how reading sequentially changes the human brain, the individual lives of each of us, and consequently the human community and its future. Reading builds a reading circuit in our brains based on older linguistic and cognitive structures – and thus changes the future of the species homo sapiens. – Professor Wolf emphasised. – Animal stories or other fairy tales are the foundation for the development of empathy – a kind of moral laboratory in which children learn how to live with others. Children who are read to from a young age become deep readers. Deep reading is the essence that builds democracy. Professor Wolf also demonstrated the skills that we develop when we read with a child from a young age, which are important elements of deep reading: knowledge of the context; perspective taking; critical analysis, novel thinking, deduction, induction, seeing analogies, imagery, insight and reflection. It is incumbent on all of us, she added strongly, that through reading, children learn to evaluate the truth. The ability to evaluate the truth has never been more important than it is today: truth is under siege today, disinformation is used every day to manipulate people, in all countries. I never thought that my work as a cognitive scientist could have an impact on democracy. But today I call myself a 'Reading Warrior’! Because we really MUST have thinking fellow citizens. – Wolf ended powerfully.

The conference was moderated by it’s initiator, Maria Deskur, president of the Universal Reading Foundation. We are delighted: everything worked, the links worked, we were listened live by almost 700 people in Ukraine, we got congratulations from listeners from the European Commission, Bulgaria and journalists from the USA. All this gives us hope that our core message of drawing attention to the need to invest in reading and education in Ukraine today, to form future citizens and democratic leaders today – will go out into the world and not go unanswered. Because that was, after all, the aim. – stressed Deskur.

Photo: Barbara Maria Morawiec