Using EdTech to break down barriers to literacy for girls  

USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government are partnering to advance EdTech to increase literacy for all children 

Using EdTech to break down barriers to literacy for girls  

UNESCO reports that for the past two decades, women have accounted for approximately 477 million of the estimated 757 million illiterate adults globally–and this educational disparity begins at the primary school level. It’s estimated that 129 million girls around the world are out of school. While enrollment rates for girls and boys globally are similar, completion rates for girls are lower in low-income countries. The gaps are starker in countries affected by fragility, conflict and violence, where girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys. Gender bias, limited income, migration and crisis contexts, child marriage and the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be barriers for girls in accessing and completing their education, which is proven to be a key factor in escaping poverty.  

Girl looking at cell phone with an ebook from the Global Digital LibraryFor the past decade, USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government have been partnering together through All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) to advance education technology education technology (EdTech) to increase reading outcomes for vulnerable and marginalized children in low resource contexts. A leader in EdTech for literacy, ACR GCD believes that education in the 21st century must leverage innovation and technology to help all children learn to read, complete school and escape poverty. Through competition and prizes, ACR GCD has catalyzed innovation by assuming the risks of research and development to support innovators who have developed and implemented game-changing, gender-balanced, accessible solutions and tools to increase child literacy in and outside of school and in crisis and emergency situations. 

When applied appropriately, EdTech can be an equalizer for access to literacy, particularly for girls who are frequently marginalized in education.

When applied appropriately, EdTech can be an equalizer for access to literacy, particularly for girls who are frequently marginalized in education. ACR GCD research shows that technology-based literacy projects have not only effectively disseminated new or existing learning materials to underserved populations but also enabled greater access to more interactive and engaging teaching and learning materials featuring girls in  positive roles. According to the World Bank, EdTech can also create new connections between teachers, students, parents and broader communities to reform and reimagine the way education is delivered. 

EdTech solutions to increase literacy are most effective at breaking barriers for marginalized children when they are guided by core principles around equity and inclusion. Below are two approaches along with related tools, that educators, implementers and policy-makers can use to develop and implement EdTech approaches and solutions that break down the barriers girls encounter when accessing literacy. 

Gender strengthening representation of girls in reading materials  

A smartphone with a page from Grace in Space on it

Grace in Space, a story about a girl with a disability who journeys to space, is available with audio narration on Bloom Library.

In A Guide for Strengthening Gender Equality and Inclusiveness in Teaching and Learning Materials, USAID underscores that characters represented in teaching and learning materials are powerful role models for children. Students are more interested in reading when they identify with characters in the storybooks where they see children and people that look, talk and live similarly to them. In literacy materials, this can be implemented by featuring engaging stories with girls as protagonists in accessible storybooks in languages they use and understand. 

An example of creative inclusion and use of girl protagonists can be found in a collection of 100 STEM books created by ACR GCD awardee Asafeer Education Technologies during the No Lost Generation Summit Tech Prize. Developed in the context of providing literacy materials for out-of-school child refugees, Asafeer innovators launched the creation of the audible, grad-appropriate, accessible, free and adaptable storybooks in Arabic and English using engaging STEM themes, and intentionally included stories with female protagonists: 

  • Grace in Space is about a girl with a disability who journeys to space. The book recently captured international attention when it was read aloud by NASA astronaut Jessica Meir and USAID Administrator Samantha Powers. SIL LEAD, another ACR GCD innovator, recently adapted the book using open source publishing software with that narration and uploaded it to Bloom Library, an online digital platform. 
  • Anabelle and the Wishing Hill is about a young girl who has the courage to make her wish to go to school come true, presenting a positive story of overcoming obstacles and gaining family and community support to access and complete her education. 
  • Layla’s Project is about a girl inspired by her grandfather to lead the way in fighting global warming, featuring the impact of empowering girls to take leadership to effect change and make the world a better place. 

These are just a few of the stories featuring engaging and positive role models for girls, which can be used in low resource contexts ranging from children who are refugees or migrants reading with parents and family members on smartphones to being projected or read aloud at reading camps or schools. The books–which are available on a number of digital libraries, where they can be read, downloaded or printed for free–were published under Creative Commons Attribution licensing, which allows others to use, translate and adapt them for free, with appropriate accreditation. 

Use digital games and apps to increase reading outcomes in out of school settings 

Cell phone with Feed the Monster application open

Feed the Monster, originally developed in English and Arabic, is now available in 50 languages.

In response to the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016, ACR GCD collaborated with the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), mobile operator Orange, and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) to fund innovator teams to develop smartphone apps to build foundational literacy in Arabic and improve the psychosocial well-being for Syrian refugee children who are out of, or struggling in, school. When evaluating the impact of two of the apps, Feed the Monster and Antura and the Letters, data on both apps show girls making gains, particularly in oral reading fluency, which is a strong predictor of reading comprehension.  

World Bank and Norad recently conducted the DIME “Movies and Mobiles” trial, engaging more than 9,000 Nigerian households with children between the ages of 6-9 with film screenings aimed at motivating parents to support their children’s education and reshape attitudes around gender bias along with the provision of smartphones preloaded with access to the Global Digital Library and Feed the Monster, adapted into local languages by Curious Learning. World Bank’s research indicates using literacy apps in homes has a spillover effect on siblings, increasing literacy skills in siblings 6-12 years of age at just slightly lower percentage than the main child using the app. Researchers concluded that to address learning crises in developing countries, development partners should accelerate the testing of mobile-based solutions, which are low-cost and scalable. 

All of this suggests that smartphone apps could provide girls, who are denied other opportunities, a chance to acquire and improve literacy skills. When coupled with educational content to address gender bias in community and parent engagement designed to encourage access to learning, smartphone learning apps and games can be effective options to increase literacy for girls. 

For more resources and tools, visit a collection of game apps and EdTech solutions to support education and literacy in conflict settings and in emergencies. 

Be part of the solution 

EdTech has the potential to break the barrier to literacy for girls and other vulnerable and marginalized children. We invite you to become part of the solution for the more than 584 million children globally waiting for the opportunity to read:  

Together, we can get all children reading!