The Book Desert: Authors, publishers and innovators have key role in solving global literacy challenge

Children in India enjoy a smartphone app with self-paced audio storybooks in the Marathi language created by ACR Round 2 grantee, Sesame Workshop India Trust. Photo credit: Sesame Workshop India Trust.

In a small village in central India, 7-year-old Gouri sits beside her father, the light of a smartphone screen gently illuminating both of their faces. They smile and laugh as they share experiences once unknown to them: the opportunity to read stories and learn facts about animals, birds, and colors in their native language of Marathi.

Gouri’s father, a farmer by trade, is illiterate. It’s not unusual in a country like India, where nearly half of all children in grade 1 are unable to recognize a letter in their mother language. By grade 5, only about 50 percent of children can read text at a grade 2 level.  

The lack of access to books and resources in a child’s mother language only exacerbates this challenge. 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 print materials are often lacking for early readers in many contexts, and the shortage is even more severe for resources in a child’s mother tongue or first language.

This crisis, dubbed the “book desert,” was the focus of a panel discussion on March 28, 2018, at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy. For Rebecca Leege, World Vision’s project director of All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, the fair—with thousands of beautiful, creative books on display—was an illustration of the challenge for millions of children around the world who can’t read them. At the same time, Leege saw tremendous opportunity, particularly as technological advances combine with the talent and determination of authors, publishers, and innovators at the fair and around the world, a growing number of whom are interested in solving this complex challenge.

“As I introduced our session focused on the book desert, I asked attendees whether they’d thought, as they walked through the fair, about the children reading these books and how it would inspire their lives,” Leege says. “And yet many other children miss out on the inspiration these wonderful books provide because they aren’t available in their language.”

Expanding access to books and materials in a child’s mother language was a key pillar of ACR GCD’s Round 2 series of grant and prize competitions that rallied a global community of innovators to develop groundbreaking solutions to illiteracy.

One such grantee is Sesame Workshop India Trust, funded to reach 12,000 children in Maharashtra, India with its Play.Connect.Learn project.  The project built a smartphone app with self-paced audio storybooks in the Marathi language, accompanying comprehension games, and assessments that featured the characters of Galli Galli Sim Sim—an Indian adaptation of the Sesame Street television show.

Seven-year-old Gouri was a participant in the Play.Connect.Learn project. Her father, once skeptical of the device provided to his daughter, immediately noticed the benefits the app was having on her learning. He then began sitting with Gouri as she played the app, and together they learned basic literacy skills in their native language of Marathi.

“My daughter has become my teacher,” he says.

Gouri’s example is proof that even small shifts in the amount of resources available to children can open new opportunities for children to seize their potential. Still, acceleration is needed to reach the millions of children who continue to lack access to books and resources in their mother tongue. The challenge also remains to make books accessible to millions of children with disabilities in developing contexts.

 ACR GCD is considering solutions to the book desert across the value chain for books. One such solution is the Global Digital Library—developed by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, with support from ACR GCD—which will provide a web-based repository of open-source reading materials in underserved languages. ACR GCD’s Book Boost: Access for All Challenge and Sign On For Literacy prize competitions also will invest in cost-effective solutions for accessibility throughout the book value chain.

Transforming the book desert into an oasis requires both proprietary and open-source solutions. The commitment of authors, illustrators, and publishers is vital in many areas, from offering titles under Creative Commons licensing, to hosting book creation workshops for local budding authors and artists in developing countries.

Only through the collective effort of many partners and innovators can we move the needle on providing all children the tools and resources necessary to realize their right to quality education.

To learn about more ACR GCD-funded innovations working to eliminate the book desert, click here.

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