November 12, 2019
In the West African country of Benin, children may speak any one of the nation’s more than 50 languages. Yet when it comes to learning to read, many children lack access to books in the language they use in the home.
“Owning just one book improves school achievement by as much as 20 percent, and yet there are millions of children around the world who do not have books in their home and limited access to libraries,” says Dr. Marcy Hessling O’Neil, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and advisor for the Peace and Justice Studies program at Michigan State University (MSU).
A large body of evidence confirms that being read to in the language a child speaks and understands in their early years builds a strong foundation for their education. Yet books are often lacking for early readers in many contexts, and the shortage is even more severe for resources in a child’s local language.
O’Neil became interested in global literacy and education as an undergraduate student in 2005, when she visited Benin for the first time. “I grew up with a love of reading. While my family was not wealthy, we did have access to great public libraries,” she says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like not having books in my language, or only having access to books that featured kids who didn’t look like me, in homes that didn’t resemble mine.”
In 2009, as a Fulbright Institute of International Education (IIE) fellow, O’Neil conducted research for her Ph.D. dissertation examining the relationship between higher education and social mobility among students and their families in Benin. This research led her to engage with many community elders, who shared cultural traditions and experiences, namely sitting under a tree listening to folktales. Many such stories had messages of teaching young children how to behave and contribute to their families.
These communities became concerned, however, that these stories were disappearing as children spent more time on homework or reading other stories using education technologies. In 2014, along with her colleagues, O’Neil created Three Sisters, a social entrepreneurship organization based in Benin and the U.S. In partnership with the Trois Soeurs Education Fund in Benin, O’Neil and her team developed a project to bring these folktales to life in print, while at the same time filling a gap in access to books in local languages.
Shortly after the establishment of Three Sisters, the team printed books and provided laptop computers to people in Benin, which served the dual purpose of bringing literacy and digital skills to community members. The first volume of books, funded through the sale of handmade jewelry and website promotion, was released shortly thereafter.
In 2016, the team conducted focus groups to find innovative ways to create local language reading materials. At the same time, O’Neil was teaching a class at MSU in anthropology called “Globalization and Justice,” and the class needed to learn how to apply theory to solve global problems. Civic engagement was a growing theme in higher education, and Three Sisters saw an opportunity to work together to help enhance learning and reading in Benin. O’Neil’s class partnered with MSU’s Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research to work with the MSU students as they learned digital skills.
O’Neil later learned about Bloom software, winner of ACR GCD’s Enabling Writers prize awarding innovations that enable local authors to easily create leveled and decodable books in local languages, including sign languages. Developed by SIL International, Bloom enables users to create an original text or select a template, called a “shell book,” and insert culturally appropriate pictures and local translations of the text. The books created can then be saved as a PDF and printed, copied, and distributed to readers.
“The Bloom software was a way to bridge the information that would be taken in Benin and connect it to the books that my students would write,” O’Neil says.
O’Neil and her students arranged for Bloom software to be loaded onto computers in the University lab. During the semester, students in the class learned to use Bloom’s photo, audio, and video editing features, and about Creative Commons licensing. They also created an accompanying website called Benin Storytellers. The team then received the raw materials (handwritten notebooks as well as digital files with the folktales) from their partners in Benin, and students in the class used Bloom to lay out the stories.
Through the process of co-creation, MSU students created illustrations or photos from the conversation with Benin partners. Dr. O’Neil also assigned discussion questions in which the participants from both countries were able to ask each other about their lives and cultures.
“The positive effects of this work and what the Bloom software can do for people allows for communities to engage in reading on a new level,” O’Neil says.
Over the semester, the MSU partners exchanged more than 3,000 messages with their partners in Benin. On the last day of class, they had a joint “book launch” via WhatsApp, and each participant received a printed copy of the book they had worked on. The communities in Benin now have books in 14 languages.
“From this class, the students now have experience in building out a project and producing innovative ways to help communities,” says Dr. O’Neil.
The team has also been invited to compete in the prestigious U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, a U.S. Department of State program that demonstrates American leadership in the preservation of cultural heritage around the world. O’Neil believes that creating more liaisons around the world can help push a culture of reading as fun for children. Using Bloom is a great start, she says.
Feeling inspired? Apply for ACR GCD’s current prize, Begin With Books, which challenges global innovators to create high-quality packages of books for children in regions of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East. The competition—which will offer up to $300,000 for books translated, adapted, or created into one of more than 30 designated spoken and signed languages—is accepting proposals through Nov. 15, 2019.