For most children, the ability to read and write is the very beginning of their education. So much is communicated through the written word that, for most people in the developed world, it is difficult to imagine life without it.

It was not always this way. The invention of writing can be traced back around 5,000 years to the pictographs of ancient Sumeria, where only a few privileged people had the skills to read it.

When the printing press was invented in the 15th century, it brought mass communication to Europe, sparking cultural revolutions and fuelling new ideas about society.

In 1820, only 12% of the world could read. Now, information is available to anyone with an internet connection — but 17% of the world’s population is still illiterate, including 122 million young people. Of those, around 60% are girls.

That matters: literacy helps to lift people and communities out of poverty; it boosts self-esteem and empowers women; it even reduces infant mortality.

Saturday is International Literacy Day, a time for governments and society to celebrate how far we have come, while reflecting on the challenges that still lie ahead. What do you think is the best way to improve literacy?

Read Our Stories


Watch this video on the evolution of books.


  1. With a partner, discuss something that you read over the summer. What was it about? Did you enjoy reading it? Did you learn anything you did not know before?
  2. Create a timeline that shows some of the major developments in literacy throughout the ages.
  3. Write a speech on the importance of literacy for young people, and how to reduce illiteracy around the world.