September 8, 2017

Improving Literacy to Lift Up the Next Generation

By Megan Rabbitt

Consider this: if every child learned how to read before leaving school, 171 million people worldwide would be lifted out of poverty. And if all women completed a primary education, maternal death rates would drop by 66 percent.

On the surface, improving childhood literacy seems like a simple solution to some of the world’s most intractable problems. But the reality is that 250 million children today cannot read. Whether it is violence keeping them from school, a disability such as blindness or deafness, or a complete lack of reading materials in a language they can understand – barriers to literacy remain widespread.

But thanks to a public-private partnership between the non-profit World Vision, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Australian government, experts in the field have discovered new and creative ways to make sure every kid gets the chance to read. With the support of partner organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Intel, and Arizona State University, the aptly named All Children Reading initiative is breaking down barriers to literacy wherever they exist.

In Lebanon, nearly a third of the country’s one million Syrian refugees are children who are currently not in school. Forced from their homes by six years of violence, these children are missing out on critical years of early education. But the majority of Syrian families have access to a smart phone— so the enterprising All Children Reading initiative recently developed an app that uses a fun game to teach Syrian children Arabic until they can get back into the classroom.

Access to education is a major barrier to literacy, but it’s not the only one. Even when children have the good fortune of attending school, they often lack the resources or support they need to develop even the most basic reading skills.

That was the case for a young girl named Alexa in the Philippines. Despite diligently attending school every day, Alexa’s serious visual impairment and cerebral palsy were holding her back from developing the literacy skills she needed. Alexa’s teacher did the best she could, but it wasn’t until she received brail materials through All Children Reading that she began to see Alexa make real progress.  Today, Alexa is not only reading stories, she’s writing her own.

Other children – like four-year-old Rashi in India – arrive at school only to realize the language of instruction is one they’ve never heard before.  In countries with a multitude of languages and dialects, this happens all too often, and in many cases the language barrier proves insurmountable. But experts agree that when given the chance to develop foundational literacy skills in their mother tongue, it is much easier for children to learn a second language. In an effort to expand access to reading materials in more languages, the initiative backed the development of a digital storybook app, so children like Rashi can develop basic literacy skills in a language they understand.

In other low-resource countries, like Zambia, the biggest obstacle to childhood literacy is often a complete lack of anything for kids to read. Harnessing the power of technology, the initiative once again turned to mobile phones to bring stories into the homes of school children. This time, stories were written by local community members and adapted for young readers by literacy specialists before being texted directly to parents.

By utilizing new age technology, the All Children Reading initiative is making tremendous progress solving the age old problem of literacy. And with 44 projects like these in countries across the globe, we have reason to be optimistic this International Literacy Day that we are closer than ever to the day when everyone around the world will have the chance to read.

photo credit: USAID