Innovations to Improve Reading: Recommendations and Reflections from USAID’s Grand Challenges Meta Evaluation 

The report highlights ACR GCD's positive results in terms of impact, supporting innovators and catalyzing action to support children’s reading.

Innovations to Improve Reading: Recommendations and Reflections from USAID’s Grand Challenges Meta Evaluation 

The cover of the USAID meta evaluation report; photo of a man and woman smiling into the cameraSince 2011, USAID and its partners have launched 12 Grand Challenges (GCs) for Development to mobilize governments, companies and foundations to solve intractable development challenges by sourcing new solutions, testing new ideas, and scaling what works. To better understand lessons learned about Grand Challenges over the past decade, USAID commissioned the Meta-Evaluation of Grand Challenges Report, focusing on nine of the 11 GCs that reached significant levels of maturity and impact at the time of the report. The report examines what the GCs achieved and how they did so, including implementation, management, budget and evaluation. The report, released in December 2021, concluded:

  • Overall, the the GCs have achieved positive results in varied sectors, many are likely to be sustainable, and have supported the scaling of some significant innovations, and
  • The GC model, when implemented well, is a results-driven approach that is both effective at supporting innovations to become scale-ready and at strengthening ecosystems.

All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) is one of the nine GC’s included in the study.  Launched in 2011 as a partnership between USAID, World Vision US and the Australian Government. ACR GCD  advances EdTech innovation and research to support the 584 million children globally who do not have basic reading skills. With awards to 90+ diverse innovators, ACR GCD has awarded more than $25 million USD, with 35% of the awards supporting children with disabilities making ACR GCD one of the largest innovation funds for inclusive education.

Key findings from the GC meta-evaluation report about ACR GCD include:

  • ACR GCD is one of nine GCs in the study that reached maturity and scale, embodying each of the five essential components of Grand Challenges: 
    • catalyzing co-investment, 
    • ecosystem engagement, 
    • sourcing new solutions, 
    • sharing knowledge and 
    • testing innovations. 
  • ACR GCD is also highlighted as a GC which has “implicitly considered Gender, Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI).”

ACR GCD leverages the power of the GCD model to “rise by lifting others” and the Partnership has resulted in the sourcing and testing of many scalable, open-source, born-accessible game-changing solutions which have reached 1.5+ million marginalized children in low-resource contexts with tools to improve their reading outcomes. For instance, ACR GCD developed some of the first inclusive Reading Assessments in underserved languages and supported others in their development. By committing to standards such as Creative Commons Licencing and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), as well as establishing Minimum and Gold Standards for Sign Language Storybook Production, ACR GCD raised the bar for an entire sector and provided tools for success. Doing more in collaboration than any one Partner or innovator could do alone, ACR GCD influenced USAID, World Vision, the Australian Government and some MOEs to deepen their own policy commitments to children with disabilities. 

ACR GCD awardees and innovations featured as successful case studies

Covers of USAID case study and knowledge products reportsACR GCD alumni, Little Thinking Minds (LTM) and eKitabu, were featured as case studies and noted as successful and effective EdTech solutions to improve reading for the most marginalized children. 

As an ACR GCD Round 2 Grant Awardee in 2014, LTM created Qysas, an interactive and animated Arabic early grade literacy app. LTM’s work was featured as an example of Delivering Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning through GCs, showcasing how the “data and evidence generated on the use, effectiveness and impact of LTM’s Qysas program at the student level was a key to wider expansion of the technology.” Qysas demonstrated regional market demand and the potential for scale across the Middle East and North Africa region. LTM’s business model for the public sector is currently being scaled at the Ministry of Education in Jordan, and during the 2018 RiseUp Summit in Cairo, LTM raised $1.265 million in funding.

ACR GCD supported three different eKitabu projects which effectively produced and developed business models for accessible digital book production to support learning for all children. eKitabu’s projects were featured in a Knowledge Product focused on Taking Innovations to Scale. During the COVID-19 pandemic, eKitabu supported continued learning for millions of children in Kenya through Digital Story Time, a daily 30-minute broadcast for children and families which uses content produced under their ACR GCD Sign on for Literacy Award. 

“We appreciate ACR GCD as it helped us to build relationships with people, get advice, connect on values, connect on impact, connect on aspirations, and even on uncertainties or hard problems to resolve.” – eKitabu

Report recommendations–and what they mean for us

Below are the top five practical recommendations to strengthen GC programs and how ACR GCD has operationalized these in our current strategy:

#1 Balance New Perspectives with Seasoned Experts

Each of the nine GCs evaluated for the report provided tailored technical assistance to innovators–half of which were actors new to USAID–in addition to grant funding. The report recommends GC managers continue this practice and build relationships with local acceleration providers and partner with relevant ecosystem actors and investors.

ACR GCD’s current activities in Round 3, which began in 2019, are focused on supporting more mature evidence-based solutions transition to scale than in previous competitions. Our approach to supporting these solutions with appropriate technical assistance was developed based on lessons learned from other Grand Challenges, namely Securing Water for Food. Targeted technical assistance is provided to current ACR GCD awardees based on responses provided in the self-assessed Scalability Assessment Tool covering five scalability dimensions: effectiveness, equitability, financial sustainability, market demand and transferability. 

#2 Design Thoughtfully Before Launch

The report reveals that the best performing GCs were those that completed a rigorous design process and context analysis prior to program launch. Common design factors among the five GCs included a strong understanding of the GC context, putting comprehensive learning and adaptation plans in place, designing, developing and supporting pathways to scale, and coordinating roles of engagement for all GC partners.

For ACR GCD, “designing thoughtfully before launch” is most evident in the country-specific co-design workshops convened for our UnrestrICTed Challenge. Designing for scale with solvers, disabled persons organizations (DPOs), implementers and decision-makers was the only way to determine pathways to scale for effective solutions which support language, literacy and learning for children with disabilities in Nepal, PNG and Rwanda. The workshops were originally designed to be in-person, but shifted to virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From co-design, ACR GCD learned that:

  • DPOs must be included as awardees or sub-awardees, with budgets, in any consortia.
  • Expectations for a single solution to meet all of the goals originally outlined wasn’t feasible and therefore the competition requirements were changed. 
  • More engagement and design feedback from users (children, teachers and parents) was necessary. 

#3 Identify Innovation at the Right Stage of Development

Taking early-stage innovations to scale requires considerable time, labor and financial resources that are often outside the bounds of what is available to most GCs. 

In ACR GCD Rounds 1 and 2, promising innovations were identified, but scalability remained elusive.  As a result, in Round 3, ACR shifted from supporting innovators and innovations at pilot or proof of concept stages to transitioning mature, evidence-based solutions to scale—reaching more children with more sustainable local solutions. One example of this is Bloom Reader, scaling in the Yumi Read Together project in Papua New Guinea by ACR awardee, Save the Children. 

#4 Build a Flourishing Ecosystem

GCs are designed and implemented within local, regional and global contexts that both influence and are influenced by the GCs themselves. Engaging ecosystem stakeholders is crucial to increase the reach and impact of solutions and provides a launchpad for continuous growth beyond the life of a GC grant. 

ACR GCD ensures that awardees engage ecosystem stakeholders through partnerships developed to achieve the goals for their awards. Partnerships range from implementing organizations, to DPOs, to Civil Society organizations, to local Women’s Associations, to Ministries of Education and other donors. Deeper, more intentional ecosystem engagement will continue to be a focus in Round 3 as awardees transition solutions to scale. 

#5 Monitor, Evaluate, and Learn

Monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) practices could be strengthened by developing an overarching framework for results that each GC could tailor and apply. 

ACR GCD’s approach to learning in Rounds 1 and 2 focused on single innovations and consisted of measuring learning outcomes, external evaluations, unstructured collaboration among awardees, and limited sharing of lessons learned with the ACR GCD partners (USAID, World Vision, and the Australian Government). The Round 2 – EdTech Summative Report has been widely cited and  highlights important findings, including: 

  • Technology-based literacy projects can offer beneficial individualized learning experiences to students. 
  • Technology has the capacity to capture individual user experiences, such as the content accessed, exposure amount, quiz and question responses, and progression through difficulty levels. These data can help projects provide individualized experiences for students. They can also generate critical information that allows implementers to strengthen project design and better understand how user experiences correlate to reading outcomes.

Further, the Summative Report on EdTech for Children with Disabilities highlighted the importance of inclusive assessments and the need to train teachers to use assistive technologies.

In Round 3, ACR GCD also embedded a Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) approach which created an operational environment more attuned to the needs of awardees and intentional horizontal and vertical collaboration with many actors at once. It operationalized a learning agenda with simple metrics that applied across the board. ACR GCD’s Learning Agenda includes intentional feedback on GC-support for innovators and how well the Challenge adapts to changing circumstances. 


Overall, the GC Meta Evaluation Report concludes that the GC model has led to the effective delivery of results and the achievement of positive, mostly sustainable outcomes in the development and humanitarian sectors. Regarding ACR GCD, the Report highlights the positive results in terms of impact, supporting innovators and catalyzing action to support children’s reading. Operationalizing the recommendations provided in the report, a deepening focus will be placed on Ecosystem Engagement and Catalyzing Action to improve the sustainability and scalability of the dozens of successful innovations ACR GCD has sourced and tested. Working together through this Partnership, USAID, World Vision and DFAT each have integration strategies committed to ensuring that ACR GCD solutions, research and tools are promoted, supported and used to support improved reading outcomes for ALL children. 

You can collaborate with us and be part of the solution for the more than 584 million children globally waiting for the opportunity to learn to read. Explore our solutions and tools to help you increase literacy opportunities in local languages for marginalized children in your work and programming. Partner with us to pilot or scale a solution or innovation in your community or region. 

Together, we can advance EdTech solutions to improve reading outcomes for marginalized children in poor regions and developing countries around the world.

Shelly Hartman Sunyak is a Senior Program Manager with All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development