February 18, 2022
Imagine learning to read without a book.
Yet millions of children around the world have little to no access to books in languages they use and understand, and globally, UNESCO reports that 40 percent of the population does not have access to education in a language they use or understand. At particular risk are children with disabilities, for whom books and classrooms, if available at all, often lack accessible formats like braille, audio and sign language. Of the estimated 34 million deaf children globally, more than 80 percent do not have access to any type of formal education and only less than 2 percent receive education in sign language that they can understand.
The ability to read is a foundational skill necessary to succeed in education–which is key to socioeconomic mobility and escaping poverty. UNESCO reports that children learn to read better in their mother tongue or home language in their early years. For children with disabilities, the need to learn to communicate in their own language with their parents and teachers is even a greater challenge. Providing early access to reading materials in local languages and adapted versions with local sign language or braille gives them the opportunity to learn to read and develop social and cognitive skills to interact with the world around them. As a result, they are more likely to succeed in school, complete their education, and gain opportunities to learn new skills and a better livelihood as adults.
Providing engaging and accessible books in these underserved languages is essential to empowering and supporting children on their path to literacy and future success in school, employment and society.
All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) believes that education in the 21st century must leverage innovation and technology to help children learn to read, complete school and escape poverty. When applied appropriately, educational technology provides access to learning for marginalized populations, significantly lowers the cost of providing reading content and exponentially improves reading outcomes. Our research shows that technology-based literacy projects have not only effectively disseminated new or existing learning materials to underserved populations in languages they use and understand but also enables greater access to teaching and learning materials for children with disabilities.
EdTech can accelerate efforts towards ensuring access to opportunities for all to read, but it must be guided by the core principles of inclusion and equity.
EdTech can accelerate efforts towards ensuring access to opportunities for all to read, but it must be guided by the core principles of inclusion and equity. During COVID-19 school closures, many countries around the world employed technology-based solutions to maintain continuity of learning, but many learners lacked the accessible materials, adapted content, and human support that would have allowed them to follow distance learning. Moreover, distance teaching and learning tools, programs and content are not always able to reflect language diversity. The use of EdTech served to increase the digital divide rather than bridge the gap.
Principles to help bridge the digital divide
Below are a few principles or guidelines ACR GCD has engaged to ensure language diversity, provide accessible materials, support individualized learning needs, engage human support and meet other challenges associated with developing and implementing EdTech solutions in languages children use and understand as part of our mission to get all children reading:
- Open source and scalable. Open source technology is source code and development is freely available to use, modify and redistribute. This inspires and promotes scaling of solutions and innovations on a global basis for language diversity and regions, making them more widely available on multiple digital library platforms.
- Born accessible. Producing books in accessible formats–like audio, braille, large print and sign language books–ensures children with disabilities have the same opportunities to participate in education and their communities. In addition, it not only can save time and cost when compared to retroactively adapting materials to meet accessibility standards, but also helps publishers and writers think about the broader range of needs of children learning to read.
- Grounded in Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Learning experiences are individualized–no two children learn the exact same way. UDL is an educational framework that helps provide flexible learning environments to improve and optimize teaching and accommodate individualized learning experiences. EdTech grounded in UDL can support individualized learning experiences and self-paced learning, even in classrooms that do not use a language a child understands, and help teachers meet the individualized learning needs of children, including those with disabilities.
- Community engagement. Family and community engagement is a key factor contributing to children’s educational achievement. Families who engage with their children’s education encourage their children to spend more time learning and increase their motivation to learn. Teachers need support and recognition from communities to perform effectively, and families need guidance from teachers and school personnel to understand how to support their children’s learning. Innovative approaches must recognize the critical and often underutilized human support role of families and communities if EdTech solutions are to be inclusive and equitable.
Putting it into action
What does EdTech supporting solutions in the languages children use and understand look like when these guidelines and principles are embedded in its DNA? Below are just a few examples of successful solutions and innovations developed and implemented by ACR GCD innovators:
- Online libraries with free, accessible books in languages children use and understand–including books for children who are deaf or with visual disabilities. ACR GCD has funded the development and improvement of online libraries to address the global shortage of high quality books in underserved and local languages, including sign languages and braille, like Global Digital Library (a free, web-based platform that makes high-quality early learning resources available in more than 90 languages, including sign languages), Bookshare (an online library of accessible content for people with print disabilities, such as dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy and other reading barriers), World Around You (a collection of sign language storybooks created through open source software that enables communities to create and share digital books and literacy content in local and national sign languages), and more. Through our current Begin with Books Challenge, innovators are creating thousands of leveled books in seven underserved spoken languages and nine sign languages, which are being uploaded to the Global Digital Library and other online libraries.
- Free tools to create accessible books. ACR GCD innovators have developed a variety of open source and free tools to facilitate the writing, translating and publishing of accessible books in languages children use and understand, like Bloom software (create simple books and translate them into multiple languages), eKitabu’s Accessible EPUB Toolkit (create books with image accessible navigation, dyslexic fonts and optional sign language videos) and World Around You (create books in local and national sign languages), and more. For examples of how these tools empower local authors and educators to create accessible books in underserved languages, read about storybooks being created in Nepal or sign language books being created in Asia, Pacific and Somalia.
- Inclusive reading assessments. One gap in equity related to education is the limited data and research on early literacy acquisition among children with disabilities in developing countries. Without accurate assessment, children are commonly labeled as slow learners, mentally challenged and low intelligence. In partnership with School to School International, ACR GCD innovators developed and conducted some of the first adaptations to make Early Grade Reading Assessments accessible to children who are blind/low vision and deaf/hard of hearing. These assessments enable educators to know the issues related to children’s literacy skills so they can be supported to learn to read.
- Forward-thinking education solutions involving the community. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated challenges in access to literacy and education, especially for children with disabilities. Through our current UnrestrICTed Challenge, ACR GCD innovators are engaging communities in learning grounded in UDL as they scale Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for children with disabilities at home and at school–like launching UDL training workshops for local teachers in Rwanda. Through our Ready2Read Challenge, innovators are focusing on solutions to target key foundational language and literacy skills in local languages that also support parents, caregivers, teachers and/or facilitators with the resources and tools to assist in filling gaps in early learning among children.
- Solutions that scale. One successful example of how open source technology inspires and promotes scaling beyond original funding is Feed the Monster, which was created through our EduApp4Syria competition to develop smartphone apps that build foundational literacy skills in Arabic and improve psychosocial well-being for Syrian refugee children. Since the competition, Feed the Monster—originally developed in English and Arabic—has scaled far beyond its original funding. Curious Learning, through its own initiative and funding, attained the open source code from GitHub to adapt Feed the Monster into more than 48 languages. In 2021, Feed the Monster was adapted into Nepali and is currently being used by more than 60,000 users in that country in addition to being integrated with the EdTech Matrix, a tool being developed and implemented by UnrestrICTed awardee World Education to help teachers choose the right technologies to support children with disabilities. Curious Learning’s new Follow the Learners dashboard showcases the breadth of Feed the Monster use, now totaling more than 478,000 users globally.
Be part of the solution!
Technology has the potential to address some of the greatest challenges in education today, but it must be guided by the core principles of inclusion and equity. Providing open source, engaging and age-appropriate reading materials in languages children use and understand, grounding EdTech in UDL and engaging the community in support of children learning to read are key components that help decrease rather than exacerbate the digital divide.
For the past 10 years, ACR GCD has implemented and scaled game-changing solutions and tools to help address gaps and barriers to child literacy. We have distributed over 1.7 million learning materials, including more than 1 million books and ebooks in more than 50 underserved languages and materials in sign languages and braille. We are firmly committed to open-source, born-accessible solutions grounded in UDL, and as a Grand Challenge, we have established a much-needed focus on inclusive education and technology aid to make inclusive education accessible.
We invite you to be part of the solution for the more than 584 million children globally waiting for the opportunity to learn to read. We encourage you to explore our solutions and tools to help you increase literacy opportunities in local languages for marginalized children in your work and programming. We hope, you too, will join us in advocating for meaningful investments in and use of innovations that increase access to local spoken and signed languages. We invite you to 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.
ACR GCD is a partnership between USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government.