May 4, 2020
Marian Hagg was a literacy worker in Mali in 2010 when she noticed the look in children’s eyes upon seeing a book in their local language of Soninke.
“Our traveling book stand, just a mat with a low table at the weekly markets of remote villages, would always draw curious villagers and crowds of children,” says Hagg, a literacy consultant for SIL International. “For most children, it was their first time seeing a book in their language, and many would run home and return with 20 cents to buy their own copy. It was probably the first book they owned.”
USAID estimates there are only 30 children’s books to serve the more than 2 million speakers of the Soninke and Sénoufo languages of Mali. The West African country has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, and while the official language is French, only 20 percent of the population understands it.
Children cannot learn to read without books. Research affirms that children experience greater reading success when learning in their local spoken or signed language, which is why creating materials in Mali’s local languages is critical for achieving the aims of Sustainable Development Goal 4 of inclusive and equitable quality education, and expanding literacy around the globe.
SIL LEAD was among four winners of the Begin With Books prize, a $900,000 competition by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, in collaboration with the Global Book Alliance, to support the creation of thousands of books in some of the most underserved languages around the world.
Over two years, SIL LEAD will create 200 quality, accessible books in the Soninke and Sénoufo languages of Mali, as well as 20 titles in Malian Sign Language, for a total of 420 books. The project will focus mostly on adapting books from the Global Digital Library, Bloom Library, African Storybook and Storyweaver platforms, as well as develop roughly 25 new books per language.
All titles will be adapted or created using SIL International’s Bloom software, which was awarded ACR GCD’s Enabling Writers prize in 2015, to capitalize on the software’s decodable, leveled, accessible and sign language tools.
“To read well, children need to read a lot,” says Hazel Large, a consultant for SIL International. “When there aren’t many interesting books for children to read, they don’t easily develop enjoyment in reading. The books we make will be the first large collection for children in Soninke, Sénoufo, and Malian Sign Language. These books will form a bridge to take children to the exciting world of learning.”
In addition to creating books, SIL LEAD will host four book production workshops, two focused on adapting, creating and translating picture books, read-aloud books, and non-fiction books, and another two focused on creating and adapting leveled and decodable books. Once the books are created and undergo quality assurance, audio will be added as well as sign language to selected titles.
Books will then be field tested with children and approval sought from the Mali Ministry of Education to promote the use of the books in schools. SIL LEAD also will hold a celebration day to promote the books among the language communities.
“We hope this project will bring into focus the importance of local language literature and education for children,” says Paul Frank, executive director of SIL LEAD. “The provision of a large collection of good local language books has the potential to positively influence community attitudes towards local language education and thus influence the future of education in Mali.”
SIL LEAD will also join ACR GCD’s new Sign Language Storybook Cohort (SLSC), consisting of other Begin With Books prize winners and ACR GCD awardees and their partners from Disabled Persons Organizations to determine standards for sign language storybook production in underserved languages. The cohort will help inform the creation of a toolkit for creating sign language storybooks, with the goal of changing publishing models among book producers to incorporate accessible features.
“The invitation to join the SLSC came as a welcome surprise,” Frank says. “As part of the SLSC, we will be able to both learn and contribute to increasingly robust support for sign language books, both during the Begin With Books project and in the years to come.”
SIL LEAD’s expansion of work into the underserved languages of Mali is made possible in part through the early investments of ACR GCD. The Enabling Writers prize funded SIL International to add key features—like decodable and leveled reader tools—to its Bloom software. In 2018, SIL LEAD was awarded additional funding from ACR GCD through the Book Boost: Access for All Challenge, which enabled the nonprofit to add accessibility features—like audio description for the blind and sign language video for the deaf— to Bloom as well as to develop resources for creating accessible books.
“Both ACR GCD prizes and the funding they brought helped make Bloom what it is today,” Frank says. “And because of these developments, Bloom is the perfect tool for creating the accessible and sign language books needed for Begin With Books.”
For the SIL LEAD team, their Begin With Books mission goes back to the stories—how the books they’ll create will have a personal impact on the life stories of Mali’s children. For Hagg, she sees the impact books and storytelling have had on her personally. And she sees her own story reflected in the eyes of Malian children when they finally encounter books in their own language.
“I remember one time as a child walking back from the library in our village in the Netherlands to our home and nearly running into a lamppost because I was completely absorbed by the story I had just started to read,” Hagg says. “We would love to see these books make the same difference for children in Mali and bring about positive changes in their education.”