Improving literacy is a challenge in even the richest and most stable monolingual countries.
For less-developed countries where multiple languages are the norm the challenges are that much more difficult, even in otherwise stable societies.
The provision of books is of course a key part of any programme to improving literacy, but print books are costly to produce and distribute, and not easily updated.
I’m writing this from The Gambia in West Africa, a tiny slither of a country, population just two million, where English is the official language but some ten languages are spoken across the country (Wolof, Serer-Sine, Sarahole, Pulaar, Maninkakan, Mandjaque, Mandingo, Jola-Fonyi and the Aku’s Creole if you must know).
Here school books are only provided in English, and I use the term “provided” loosely. Parents have to pay for textbooks even where education is notionally free, and a simple maths or English study book can cost more than a week’s food money for a family.
For older students, some are working from textbooks over thirty years old.
Digital will in time solve these problems, but as yet there is no digital innovation in the education sector in The Gambia.
In this respect The Gambia is way behind other African nations, such as Kenya, where the digital operator eKitabu is making great strides. This week eKitabu won a major digital publishing innovation award.
Launched in 2011 by USAID, World Vision and the government of Australia, the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development is a series of competitions that
leverages science and technology to source, test, and disseminate scalable solutions to improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries.
Among the competitions is the Book Boost: Access for All Challenge, which
seeks business models that are rooted in optimizing and increasing the number of accessible books in the title development phase of the book value chain, resulting in a more efficient and cost effective process.
According to the All Children Reading website,
Around 250 million children of primary school age around the world are unable to recognize basic letters and numbers, even though half of them have spent at least four years in school. Despite the importance of books in boosting foundational literacy skills, there is a global shortage of books for children in many mother languages. For the estimated 19 million children globally that are blind or have low vision or the millions of children with other disabilities that impact their use of traditionally printed material, the shortage of quality books in accessible formats is even more severe.
Of the four projects that made the semi-finals, three originated in the US and one in Africa.
San Francisco based The Asia Foundation was one of the semi-finalists.
Building on the successful launch of Asia’s first free, open-source library of children’s books, The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia team will make the library platforms and book collection accessible to people living with visual impairments–starting with Indonesia in 2018 and scaling to other developing countries in the region. Through partnerships with government agencies, the publishing industry, educational institutions, and NGOs—particularly those working with children with disabilities—the project will generate 200 accessible children’s book epubs, while building the capacity of publishers and content producers. The result: A digital library of books for all children, no matter their socioeconomic status, location, or visual ability.
The second semi-finalist was Boston based World Education Inc.
The Reading Equality with Accessible Design (READ) project would build on the Enabling Writers initiative, through which World Education has already developed a foundation for developing books for beginning readers in Nepali (itself an underserved language) and six of Nepal’s minority languages. READ would incorporate accessibility considerations into title development workshops, engage persons with disabilities in the process, and work with communities and newly formed local governments to promote and institutionalize a model for low-cost, accessible, and linguistically appropriate book title development.
Coming to the winners:
Washington based SIL LEAD has enhanced its
widely used Bloom software with accessibility features, allowing current and new Bloom users to create “born accessible” reading materials in underserved languages. Bloom support services will also be enhanced, including an online dashboard system to track title use, training materials, and a Bloom library website that meets accessibility standards.
The second winner is Kenya’s eKitabu.
Nairobi-based eKitabu aims to facilitate a
facilitate a transition to a sustainable, born accessible book chain in Kenya. Building on work with UNICEF’s Digital Accessible Textbook initiative making textbooks accessible for learners with disabilities, eKitabu will adapt local language books into accessible digital reading materials. We will publish a toolkit that provides content developers and publishers with resources to create new, born accessible, digital reading materials. eKitabu will also launch a Content Development Challenge with prizes for high quality, accessible new reading materials.