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2020 winners of the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes

Today, on International Literacy Day, we’re celebrating the teachers at the heart of five award-winning organisations that use literacy education to help adults and children fulfil their potential, benefitting not just their students but entire communities. 

As countries around the world plan their routes out of COVID-19 disruption, having literate, empowered citizens is vital. Literate communities are communities equipped to build a better world. These are the winners of the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes who have greatly contributed to this goal.


Winners of the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize for the development of mother-tongue education:


Ageing Nepal, Nepal

In a country where the majority of adults are illiterate, the teachers of Ageing Nepal are on a mission to empower people with basic skills in reading, writing and numeracy, in both English and Nepali.

Their work is innovative and instructive. Teachers use role play to build student confidence and to help them to see the relevance of lessons for everyday life. Classes are also taken into the real world, touring the local markets so students can practice their reading on street signs and market displays. Ageing Nepal’s senior teachers and facilitators encourage students to use their new skills to express themselves in the form of reciting poems, telling stories as well as cracking jokes. 

Since 2016, this pioneering, experimental approach has helped 180 older people build the confidence to better share the benefits of their age and experience with their communities.


United World Schools, UK

United World Schools (UWS) is an international charity ‘teaching the unreached’ in remote and marginalised communities in Cambodia, Myanmar and Nepal. Its mission is to help communities develop sustainable education structures. Educators provide ongoing support until each school is self-sustaining and able to provide education for all the community’s children. 

Crucially, it trains teachers from within the community. This preserves indigenous languages, customs and culture all whilst providing children with the foundations of mainstream Burmese education so they can qualify for Burmese-language government schools. Since 2008, UWS have trained nearly 400 teachers and had over 35,000 children enrolled in their schools, transforming the prospects of 225 communities.

COVID-19 may have made this mission more difficult to achieve, but UWS has built the infrastructure to act fast and assist its teachers in navigating the crisis to keep students learning. 

“UWS supports our supply of soaps, and materials like paper and pens to make posters for our COVID-19 awareness campaign...We are also getting training on regular education topics like subject knowledge, teachers’ guide, and lesson plan development," says Stellar, 35, a teacher at a UWS school in Eastern Shan State, Myanmar.


Winners of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy for the promotion of literacy amongst adults in rural areas and out-of-school youth:


Just Commit Foundation, Ghana

Teachers at the Just Commit Foundation (JCF) take a holistic approach to the idea of ‘literacy’. Reading, writing, comprehension and grammar, in both local languages and English, is at the core of the Foundation. But their broader mission is to help students become life-literate. They design lessons that teach students the management and leadership skills they need to build and maintain their own businesses, even when resources are limited. For the teachers, it’s a joy to see their hard work pay off, “The feeling is always unique when you have the chance to teach Creative Arts for entrepreneurship to...the most disadvantaged students in Ghana.” JCF have so far helped hundreds of children develop the skills they need to support themselves and develop their communities through business, with more than 30 home and school businesses set up and running successfully.


Learning By Teaching, Mexico

The ‘Learning by Teaching’ programme at the Centro Universitario de Participación Social (CUPS) in Puebla, Mexico elevates teachers and community members alike. Running for nine weeks over the summer, the programme transforms bright young university students into teachers, sending them to remote communities otherwise marginalised from mainstream education. The university students gain thorough training in teaching methodologies, and an opportunity to develop and make use of their social conscience. The adults they teach gain a solid grounding in literacy, science and the arts. Over 3,000 adults in the state of Puebla have benefitted from the programme so far, helping to boost the overall literacy rate in the region.


General Literacy Office, Yemen

Since 1998, the General Literacy Office in Sana’a, Yemen has organised the 'Educating and Integrating Refugees in Literacy Classes in Yemeni Society’ programme, operating in 21 provinces and overseeing 215 literacy centres. Its aim is to help refugees complete the formal education courses required for them to be able to access preparatory and secondary education in the country. Despite six years of war bringing widespread disruption to education, the future has not been forgotten. Teachers in Sana’a remain committed to educating not just local children, but the refugees now in their care. 652 students were enrolled in the programme in 2019 alone. By 2023, the General Literacy Office in Sana’a plans to open a further 34 literacy centres, to help  integrate even more refugees into Yemeni society with classes in Arabic literacy, numeracy, and essential life skills.

What unites this year’s prize winners is the understanding that literacy is a means, not an end. Literacy education equips these institutions’ students with the basic tools to build a life for themselves and a better future for their communities. Though often operating in difficult circumstances, each of these organisations demonstrates how bringing education to the marginalised benefits us all.

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Image credit: Sidsel Sørensen


This blog is part of a series of stories addressing the importance of the work of, and the challenges faced by teachers in the lead up to this year’s World Teachers’ Day celebrations.