May 28, 2021
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging families and communities in children’s education was not the most prominent approach to addressing the global learning crisis of more than 387 million children unable to read by the end of primary school.
But in March 2020, when the pandemic left more than 1.5 billion children out of school, a focus on engaging parents in education was paramount. Education implementers and innovators globally set out to determine how they could pivot to effectively engage and support parents in facilitating their children’s learning.
Engaging families and communities in children’s reading has been a key focus area of the All Children Reading Grand Challenge since our inception in 2011, citing several studies that indicate positive effects of family involvement in a child’s education, with the greatest effects demonstrated in the early grades. Creating a reading culture outside of school is critical for increasing children’s literacy and educational outcomes—and ultimately future success.
Seeking to bolster the critical role families and communities play in children’s learning, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD)—a partnership of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Vision and the Australian Government—funded four projects aimed at sourcing and testing innovative approaches for family and community engagement. While these projects were all implemented prior to COVID-19, each provides key lessons for engaging parents both during the pandemic and beyond.
Across these four projects—implemented in Zambia, Mali, Mexico, and India—a common question among parents and caregivers was how their responsibility in their child’s education complemented that of the school. Most believed teaching to be a function reserved only for the classroom.
On a global level, however, with differing cultures, contexts, and scales of belief about education, there is no blanket solution. That is why ACR GCD committed to understanding the complex systems-level challenges of child illiteracy around the globe. Recognizing the role families and communities play in boosting child literacy, our partnership sought innovative ways to engage and motivate families and communities to support children’s reading.
As a result, these four projects looked beyond the traditional classroom for solutions. Interventions were implemented either within the household or community libraries, and there were benefits to both approaches. The full summary results can be found in ACR GCD’s report, Engaging Families and Communities to Support Student Reading Skills Development, prepared by research partner School-to-School International.
Creativity beyond the classroom
At the household level, two projects leveraged technology families already owned to deliver literacy content. The Makhalidwe Athu (“Our Way of Staying”) project in Zambia and Play.Connect.Learn project in India explicitly linked parents to the project and required greater levels of engagement from parents and caretakers with intervention technologies.
At the community level, two projects introduced reading technologies at libraries, enabling children to attend libraries with or without a family member. The Your Child, Reading, and You project in Mali and the Mundo de Libros project in Mexico opened libraries to all children and families. End-of-project interviews suggested these library-based projects may have created a reading culture in their broader communities. Many other children and community members, beyond the project’s participants, attended the Your Child, Reading, and You project libraries—so many, in fact, that there was oversubscription and librarians had to limit the greater community’s access.
Beyond implementation, the three projects that included trainings or workshops for parents and caretakers had varying levels of impact. The Makhalidwe Athu project in Zambia held monthly meetings for families and communities, led by community mobilizers who also supported families and children outside of the workshops. The project experienced high attendance rates (93 percent), with higher rates reported in rural versus urban communities.
Engaging families and communities in a meaningful way remains challenging, however, as there are often many factors that impact the ability or willingness of families to support their children’s learning. Careful attention to the needs of families and communities is essential to tailor and market resources effectively.
Meanwhile, crowdsourcing content from community members engaged them by giving a sense of ownership in their children’s learning. Results from the Makhalidwe Athu project—which crowdsourced 267 local stories from families in communities in the ciNyanja language—indicated that 21 percent of parents and caretakers who received stories for their children said they had submitted a story or idea to the project.
Interviews with parents and caretakers at the end of the projects also found increased awareness of their role and ability to provide support for their children’s reading. Introducing parents and caretakers into their children’s reading development process thereby created the conditions to change traditional mentalities about their roles in children’s education.
While teachers and schools are absolutely part of the solution to improve children’s reading, these projects demonstrate that creative solutions beyond traditional methods are essential for creating reading cultures within households and communities.
While more research is needed to understand the most effective and meaningful approaches to create reading cultures within households and communities, these four projects illustrate the power of creativity and user experience in harnessing a future in which all children can read and write.