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Education, Literacy, and Social Justice

By Cassie Wen, CUHK MPhil/PhD Candidate

Even before the pandemic, there had been an international decline in volitional reading already, particularly among less advantaged readers (OECD, 2019). Concerns about the reading habits of the public cannot be well-addressed if we do not carefully consider readers’ access to literacy and reading resources at a young age.


To illustrate, the data in 2019 shows that 383,755 children and young people don't have a book of their own in the UK, and a more recent survey indicates that the gap in reading enjoyment between pupils from lower-income households and their peers doubled from 2020 to 2021 (Clark and Picton, 2021). What else do we know about the critical importance and the issues of social injustice in our children’s reading? Let us tell the whole story to you.



Why do children need a better reading life?

For individuals, literary knowledge contributes to both the linguistic capital defined by "Standard English" and the symbolic capital, a knowledge capital that entitles its possessor to the cultural and material rewards of the well-educated person (Guillory, 1993).


First and foremost, reading literature is essential to literacy development. As one of the most basic skills, literacy is crucial for one’s educational engagement, career opportunities, and overall socio-cultural engagement. With its profound impacts on all sides of one’s communication, education, social integration and civil life participation, literacy has been understood as something far more than a technical (neutral and autonomous) skill.


New literacy studies (Street, 2012) gave an ideological lens to see how literacy always mediates social practice and consequently reflects on the matter of development. To take literacy to the social domain, we need the recognition of its instrumental use as not value-free. Introducing literature and cultivating literacy to the culturally deprived communities will improve their lives on a societal level.


Equipped with necessary literacy skills, individuals will find that the world is open to them and that there are always potential mindful disruptions that shift standardised paradigms of thought. Also, previous research has clearly shown that reading literature will generate not only academic benefits in regards to knowledge, but also significant benefits in cultural and social aspects. Scholars in different disciplines of psychology, linguistics, literature, pedagogy, and philosophy have recognised the power of story as a ‘fundamentally human endeavour used to make sense of experience and the world’. (Simpson and Cremin, 2022) On the other hand, when disadvantaged children lack regular access to reading, they are also deprived of a very large part of liberal education and public discussion. It is reasoned to say that reading literature can bring sociocultural inclusiveness and political emancipation to readers apart from aesthetic joy and philosophical excitement.

Furthermore, reading contributes to improving adults’ emotional skills of empathy, perspective taking and mentalising (Kidd and Castano, 2013). In some cases, it directly helps people get through hardship with a healthier mentality. For instance, during the pandemic, 44% of young children from 8 to 18 years old reported that reading made them feel better and helped them to relax (Clark and Picton, 2021).


However, too often this ideal of intellectual development and emotional support is pulled down to the ground by the monetary reality. It is time for us to reveal the reading’s affordances in our children’s life.

How does their reading relate to social justice and equity?

From Michel Foucault, and Antonio Gramsci to Pierre Bourdieu and Paulo Freire, so many philosophers and educators have told us that knowledge – both its production and reproduction — is the site of power. Through reading, children will gradually gain their versions of the situated context of knowledge, where there is the hegemony of class, race, gender, and sexuality, the cultural capitals and power dynamics shaping societal norms, institutions, and values. In this sense, engagement with reading books means far more than young people’s individual development.


As mentioned before, reading is closely tied to one’s literacy skills and literary education, hence what is at stake here is the long-term undertaking of education equity. The upper middle class, while more securely entrenched in institutional schooling, also enjoy exclusive access to reading and consequently key positions in public expression in our society. On the contrary, an underprivileged kid is still facing various obstacles in the extension and improvement of their reading life.


Education is a strong force that undergirds social distinctions, but dialectically, it is also a dynamic locus of social mobility. It requires us to ponder on how we can choose to resist the inequality within and beyond the educational system.                                               


In the lens of social justice, literacy is emphasized because it offers the potential to transform current educational activities for children from nondominant communities (Gutiérrez, Morales and Martinez, 2009). It is never just a matter in the academic field that might impact their future career path. Throughout the history of education, Lawrence Stone (1969) finds out there is a strategy of intellectual exclusion that works against societal redistribution of knowledge. But just as pointed out by the founders of the Labour Party and other self-educated radicals, ‘no disenfranchised people could be emancipated unless they created an autonomous intellectual life’ (Rose, 2021). We need to see through the sharp distinctions between the working class and people from higher socio-economic strata, females and males, minority groups and the dominant in the whole reading history. 


Reading mediates politics. Literature has significant political implications, and in fact, not just through somewhat explicit political messages in it, but ‘the whole canon of world literature could help young people develop powers of understanding’ (ibid.). Therefore, it is very important that young minds in our society have opportunities for such transformative experiences, hence be prompted to advocate for underprivileged communities and work towards a more equitable and compassionate world.

What is the current situation and what can we do?

“Literacy is not an end in itself; it is a fundamental human right” (UNESCO, 2005), as those who frequently read and become avid readers with an enriched vocabulary will have a wider and deeper knowledge of the world ​​(McQuillan, 2019). 


However, as is often the case, public educational facilities now cannot guarantee equity. With reference to the UK's national statistics of early years foundation stage profile results (2016-2017), the systemic inequity of education has always been obstinate, particularly when it becomes intersected at pupil characteristics of ethnicity, eligibility for free school meals, special educational needs, English as a first language, and deprived areas. Complementary second-hand book markets and public libraries are not able to make up for the high cost of new books and literary periodicals. Even worse, the pandemic has exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities in reading attainment across the world.


This will lead to further social injustice, especially in the UK society that embeds the strongest connection between poverty, educational attainment and basic skills among all the developed countries (OECD, 2021). The most up-to-date report from UK National Literacy Trust (2023) illustrates the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on children’s access to books and educational devices. Parents are buying fewer books for their children and households are losing quiet space for reading. For now, 1 in 11 disadvantaged children in the UK doesn’t have a book of their own, given the fact that children who have a book of their own are 6 times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than their peers who don’t own a book.


There lies a great imbalance, because 81.3% of parents report their child actually enjoys reading. As clarified above, ‘all children deserve opportunities to connect, to escape from reality, to imagine alternative worlds and to expand their cultural understanding through life-resonant and life-expanding literature’ (Clark and Picton, 2021). In the acknowledgement that those inequities are constantly intensified by systemic disadvantage, increasing poverty, and the post-pandemic effects, we are urged to think about what we can do to liberate reading and bring it forward to the social justice agenda. 

When researchers (Kuczera, Field and Windisch's, 2016) pose the call on the literacy skill (one of the basic skills) standards for all young people to be raised, we need to wait a second and think about those who are already lagging behind at this stage. It requires not only a sustained effort in all parts of the education system, but also civil organisations to support children from humble backgrounds with access to literacy and literature.

Discover The Reading Corner's innovative approach to literacy education. We prioritise nurturing a love for reading, empowering students to explore diverse and engaging materials of their choice, in order to develop the necessary skills as part of their learning experience. If you're interested in making a difference, consider participating in events, fundraising, writing for our blog, donating, or advocating for our cause. Together, let's bridge the literacy gap and create a brighter future for all. Reach out at to get involved.

  • Guillory,G.(1993), Cultural Capital. The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. University of Chicago.

  • McQuillan, J. (2019), The Inefficiency of Vocabulary Instruction. Int. Electron. J. Elem. Educ. (Novermber: 309–318).         

  • National Literacy Trust (2023),Children and young people’s access to books and educational devices at home during the cost-of-living crisis | National Literacy Trust Children and young people’s access to books and educational devices at home during the cost-of-living crisis | National Literacy Trust

  • OECD (2012), Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, OECD Publishing.

  • OECD(2019), Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators; OECD Publishing: Paris, France

  • Street, B. (2012). New literacy studies. Language, ethnography, and education: Bridging new literacy studies and Bourdieu, 27-49.

  • Stone,L.(1969), Literacy and Education in England 1640–1900, Past and Present 42 (February: 73)

  • UNESCO (2005). Literacy for Life; EFA Global Monitoring Report; UNESCO: Paris, France.

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