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Leveraging Technology to Build Literacy Among Millions of Displaced Children and Those with Disabilities



Innovations and Collaborations Provide Learning Opportunities for Kids in Need

There are about a quarter of a billion children around the world who cannot read, often due to lack of resources in their language, conflicts that have displaced them from their homes and communities, or because education systems do not accommodate the needs of children with disabilities.

Whatever the underlying reasons, illiteracy represents one of the 21st century’s most daunting and complex global challenges, and one where technology-based tools are beginning to emerge that can help. New edtech innovations using open source applications and gamification are some recent developments that can help kids learn basic reading skills.

During the past five years, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD), a partnership of USAID, World Vision, and the Australian Government, has been offering grants and prizes to global innovators to advance the development, testing and dissemination of scalable solutions to teach early grade learners how to read.  Many of these applications can be accessed via commonly available hand-held phones.

Some of the recent innovations developed with support from ACR GCD include:

1. Reaching Children Affected by Conflict

Because of years of war in Syria, there are now an estimated 2.8 million displaced Syrian children who are out of school and facing trauma and high levels of stress, which affects their learning ability.

EduApp4Syria is a Norwegian Government-led competition conducted with ACR GCD and a coalition of global partners to develop open source smartphone-based learning games to help Syrian refugee children learn to read in Arabic and improve their psychosocial wellbeing.

Earlier this year, 30 Syrian children were invited to beta test three innovative smartphone apps created by the competition finalists to help teach reading in Arabic using games on family’s smartphones [watch the video here].  The initial results have been overwhelmingly positive, with the underlying aim to promote their continued learning and future reintegration into school. The winning games will be released on Google Play and the App Store in late March 2017.

Another edtech innovation that provides an education to Kenyan students who often cannot gather in traditional school settings due to war or dislocation is being implemented by Xavier Project, in partnership with Eneza Education. ACR GCD provided them with funding to pilot a project that supplies seventh- and eighth-grade students and their teachers in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya with phone access to subject-based studies, tutorials, quizzes and more. ENEZA is a mobile Short Messaging Service (SMS) study tool that comes with a live Ask-a-Teacher feature students can use if they’re struggling. In the first three months, 1,000 students participated and together took more than 41,000 quizzes.

Such innovations are helping prevent the stalling and reversal of education and literacy gains among displaced children in conflict, health crisis or disaster affected regions.

2. Including Children with Disabilities

Most children with disabilities in developing countries don’t attend school.  Education systems often do not accommodate these children’s needs. A lack of suitable transport and infrastructure, inadequate teacher training, insufficient learning support or a dearth of high quality learning resources prevent children with disabilities from attending school or fully participating in it. While technological breakthroughs are creating new opportunities, millions of individuals with disabilities are still left behind.

Supported by a grant from ACR GCD, Benetech developed and launched a pilot project that provides Indian students who are blind or low vision with mother tongue reading materials through Bookshare, a digital library of more than 500,000 accessible books. The project supplied 30 braille stories paired with human-narrated Marathi audio, the primary spoken language in the Maharashtra region of India.  The students are also visited weekly by a “Story Auntie” who makes stories come alive while helping the children learn braille.

Education services for deaf/hard of hearing are also often minimal and under-resourced.  In Morocco, approximately 85 percent of children who are deaf or hard of hearing don’t attend school, and most teachers who work with this population do not have any special education training. There are also insufficient numbers of teachers that are fluent in sign language to provide students with a language-rich environment during the school day.

A team of Moroccan and American deaf and hearing researchers has united to improve the literacy of deaf students in Morocco by adapting an assistive software that helps teachers develop Moroccan Sign Language (MSL) and Arabic supported learning materials. The innovative software enables users to access a dictionary containing MSL graphics, video clips, and supporting concept graphics to easily create and publish MSL-supported educational materials for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The dictionary contains 3,000 MSL graphics and video clips representing 5,500 words in Modern Standard Arabic with supporting concept graphics. This software will revolutionize the way teachers create MSL instructional materials, thus increasing the amount, type, and quality of such materials.

All children, including those with disabilities, deserve the right to reach their full potential. When given the tools, education, and resources to achieve literacy, children are better equipped and empowered to participate fully in their communities and live a life of opportunity.  To incentivize greater progress in this area, ACR GCD will soon be announcing a global prize focused on sign language and literacy that will seek innovative, technology-based solutions to increase language and literacy outcomes for students who are deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind.

3. Easy Access Classroom Resources and Learning Materials

Learning to read is not a skill that’s easily “picked up;” it requires both teaching from trained instructors and access to appropriate teaching and learning materials in one’s mother tongue.  In many developing countries or among displaced communities, classrooms use out-of-date textbooks — or none all — and have limited access to teachers or other resources to support and enrich student learning.

Through a grant from ACR GCD, Amman-based Little Thinking Minds has built a platform that includes more than 125 eBooks.  The app introduces reading through a leveled reading platform and game-based feedback for a child-centered and differentiated approach to learning.  This has evolved into a digital library that is easy to access through online and offline platforms in schools, and supported by after-school literacy clubs for participating students. More than 350 students across 10 schools in Amman are now participating in the project’s second year, with plans to expand the program to more schools across the country and region.

4. Improving Mother Tongue Instruction

Research shows that teaching and reading in a child’s mother tongue language lays a strong foundation for learning to read and write later in life.  And yet, half of the world’s children are taught to read in a language that’s different from what they use at home.

In Zambia, for example, because many teachers have been educated in English, they lack the necessary pedagogical training in literacy instruction in local languages. GraphoGame™, a literacy game for children built on research conducted in 20 countries, is being used as a sustainable, cost-effective mobile intervention to improve students’ basic reading skills.

The Agora Center, at The University of Jyväskylä and its partner, the University of Zambia, created the GraphoGame™ Teacher Training Service (GG-TTS) to improve teachers’ use of technology to support literacy instruction. Teachers are trained to use it as part of their literacy lessons to assist struggling students in learning basic letters and sounds in their mother tongue language. Through the GG-TTS website, teachers can access material, via their mobile phones, on how to implement the GraphoGame™ in their classrooms and learn literacy instruction pedagogy. 

Continuing Innovation and Collaboration

Without literacy, children are likely on a lifetime trajectory of limited educational progress that leads to limited economic opportunities and vulnerability to most other development challenges. With literacy rates closely correlated with economic growth and stability, implementing edtech solutions to advance the cause of literacy everywhere is an important global mission.  By offering literacy tools that enable children to learn to read, ACR GCD is opening the doors of opportunity to young people around the world and to the organizations that are empowering great progress through technology-based solutions.

For more information on EdTech projects and partnership opportunities, view our innovator profiles at AllChildrenReading.org or follow us on twitter.


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Rebecca Leege is World Vision's (WV) Director for their partnership in All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development. Previously, she was Director for Child Development/ Protection. Rebecca also worked with World Relief, initially in Rwanda as their Director of Programs before relocating to their headquarters as Director of Global Program Operations. She has lived and worked throughout Africa and Asia for over 15 years. Rebecca also spent six years in the private sector in international human resources.



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