Let’s talk about resilience and sustainability: Early literacy Q&A part 2 of 3

10 November 2022

Let’s talk about resilience and sustainability: Early literacy Q&A part 2 of 3

By Leanne Rencken

International Literacy Day has been celebrated annually since 1966. This year’s theme is ‘Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces… an opportunity to rethink the fundamental importance of literacy learning spaces to build resilience and ensure quality, equitable and inclusive education for all'.

Rather than focus on a single day in September, we asked some of the people and organizations that do critical work in the early literacy field to answer three important questions related to the theme and how they plan to sustain the good work they are doing over time.

As noted in the first part of this series, we have divided this piece into three parts. 

Our Q&A participants

Dr Nkem Osuigwe was recently named the Wikimedia Newcomer of the Year and spoke to us on behalf of the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA) where she works as Human Capacity Development and Training Director.

Dr Osuigwe nominated Dunstanette Davies, head of the children’s department at the Sierra Leone Library Board, to share her personal thoughts and early literacy experiences. Davies was also part of the first cohort of librarians to pilot AfLIA’s Early Literacy Development Course, specifically created, in partnership with NBA, for librarians and library staff in Africa, who want to support children in their early literacy learning journey. On finishing the course, Davies stated that ‘the Early Literacy course has given me more confidence to engage in discussions concerning early literacy development. Am forever grateful’. So, it’s great to have her included in this conversation.

Prolific South African author and translator, Lorato Trok, responded to our questions from her own point of view as well as that of that of the Puku Foundation, where she works as the Managing Editor.

We also heard from Dorcas Wepukhulu on behalf of African Storybook (ASb), a multilingual literacy initiative that works with educators and children to publish openly licensed storybooks for early reading in African languages. ASb was established by Saide, a non-governmental organization (NGO) where Wepukhulu works as the East and West African Coordinator.

Purvi Shah, Senior Director at StoryWeaver, an initiative by India’s non-profit publisher, Pratham Books, commented from her experience at StoryWeaver: A platform on which multilingual reading resources can be created, translated and freely accessed. It helps children build reading habits through openly licensed storybooks, reading programmes, audio books and videos, and is one of the largest open educational resources (OER) for children’s storybooks, with over 300 languages represented.

Julia Norrish, Executive Director at Book Dash, provided input from the South African-based, social impact publisher. Book Dash believes that every child should own one hundred books by the age of five. The books are created by volunteer groups of professional writers, editors, and illustrators, and are openly licensed so that they can be freely translated, printed, and distributed.

Noluthando Ncube, the Ulwazi Lwethu project manager gave insight to this African language reading materials project, which was set up by the Zenex Foundation in South Africa. This resource development initiative is developing African language reading books and teacher reading support resources targeted at teaching learners in the foundation phase to read in their home language.

Note: Part three will be released next week. Some of the answers have been edited for length.

In Part 2 of our Q&A we asked:

Given the upheaval experienced throughout COVID-19 and subsequently, what are you doing in 2022 to build more resilience for your organization and the learning you’re providing as well as for the learners who are embarking on their early literacy journey? With so many learners ‘lost’ to formal education when schools were shut, what are you doing to bring them back, or to ensure that early literacy learning reaches them…?  

Nkem Osuigwe for AfLIA: Libraries learned various things from COVID-19. African libraries are beginning to understand the importance of offering information services even when their doors are closed. Learning must go on and education cannot wait. Librarians are beginning to latch on to the fact that libraries do not offer ‘formal structured’ avenues and spaces for learning. One can always catch up anytime as there are no promotion exams from one class to the other, so to speak. AfLIA, with the assistance of NBA, developed and ran a course on Early Literacy development to help African public and community librarians learn about services for children’s literacy. This was essential to close any gaps left by formal education institutions due to COVID-19 and remains an important tool as libraries open up again. This course has made more libraries step up in providing services that help children develop phonemic awareness and learn how to read.

A detailed report providing a summary of the findings from the course pilot can be found here

Dunstanette Davies: COVID-19 badly struck our education system in Sierra Leone. Schools and colleges were closed. However, during the upheaval the library never shut its doors to the public. In fact, statistics show that the number of users and the number of books loaned out increased compared to the year before the pandemic. It was during this period that parents especially valued the library space and trusted us as a reliable partner in education. The library made several adjustments to meet the growing needs of its patrons. COVID-19 opened the library to unlimited possibilities. Not only did we set up mobile library systems to reach children who could not make the trip to our libraries, we also set up WhatsApp reading groups where selected books were read and discussed. The library was in constant communication with parents and caregivers, promoting our facility and encouraging them to use it. As we progress, we have not relented in our endeavours to ensure that early learners are being well catered for at school, at home, and within our libraries. Our 25 libraries across the country engage in the following: engagement with parents and children, commemorating national and international days, reading promotion, children’s activities including ‘story hour’, holiday reading programs, staff training and skills development, welcoming daycare centers into our children’s corners, marketing our services using various media, engaging stakeholders, and partners, and acquiring relevant books and resources.

Lorato Trok: Our organisation, Puku Children's Literature Foundation was affected tremendously by COVID-19 and even before then. We have held onto hope and we’re still steering our organization through the hardships. We have continued to review books that parents, teachers, and learners can access on our website. Our reviews can lead children and caregivers to books that are fun, and available via the publishers we link to on our website – we can only bring learners back to reading through books that are enjoyable.   


A post shared by Lorato Trok (@troklorato)

Lorato Trok (right) is pictured here at the recently held Gothenburg Book Fair in conversation with Professor Diphete Bopape (center), psychologist, teacher, author, editor and publisher, talking about writing for teenagers. Image source: Instagram

Purvi Shah for StoryWeaver: A 2021 study conducted by Azim Premji University in India  found that due to COVID-19 related school closures, on average, year to year, 92% of children lost at least one language skill, for example reading familiar words, or writing simple sentences based on a picture, while 82% lost one mathematical skill, like identifying numbers or describing shapes. At StoryWeaver we took this time to pause, reflect and create programmes that leverage the power of stories to help teachers and parents bridge this gap. We created a suite of programmes for children from preschool through Grade 5 that include an early childhood, reading, foundational literacy, and a soon to be launched STEM literacy programme.  Each of these is linked to learning outcomes and scaffolded with activities, worksheets, audio visual resources, and training videos, making it easier for any teacher anywhere to adopt. Stories are at the heart of all of this, ensuring that children stay connected, learn and heal. The programmes can be deployed in multiple ways while keeping in mind the child’s context, and whether they are online or offline, at home or in the classroom.

We have observed that in some regions, digital adoption has escalated because of the pandemic and the need for quickly adapting to remote learning. We believe that blended learning models, offline and online, are here to stay. Technology and openly-licensed content have the power to give children uninterrupted access to the resources they need to continue their reading and learning journeys, and StoryWeaver is committed to making this a reality, by building a strong, vibrant culture of reading.

Dorcas Wepukhulu for African Storybook: Essential to building more resilience for the ASb initiative and the lessons we are providing, is our strategy of collaborating with a wide range of partners involved in children’s literacy. These partners include education ministries, literacy development initiatives, international literacy partners, and individual literacy champions who work within their local communities.

For children from economically poor communities, attending school is not enough for them to recover what they lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, and so our champions’ strategy extends beyond formal school set-ups. For example, some champions work with under-represented groups such as girls and children in refugee camps, or with under-represented nomadic pastoralist communities who are constantly on the move.  

Post COVID-19 we are expanding our strategy to work with more libraries and schools in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa like Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Zambia, and Ethiopia, to build the capacity of librarians and teachers and to create awareness among parents. The more educators and parents who are aware of the freely available ASb resources, the more they will access and use them independently to make up for lost literacy time.

A man wearing a white shirt and holding a yellow book sits on the ground surrounded by a group of young children wearing brightly coloured clothes. The man is telling the children a story. To the left of the man is a women, also sitting on the ground, and wearing a white t-shirt. To the right of the image is another picture depicting the book cover.

African Storybook champion, Dr John Ng’asike is pictured here reading the African Storybook picture book, Muurui with children at the Locher Esekon Early Childhood Development Centre in Turkana County, Kenya. The Ng’aturkana language book, pictured on the right, can be found here on the African Storybook website. Image source: African Storybook website

Julia Norrish at Book Dash: Book Dash's approach of focusing on young children has always been informed by the understanding that development happens during the first five years at an extremely fast rate that is not repeated again later in life, and that it's the highest impact space for intervention. Therefore we are always thinking about how to achieve the greatest impact within the smallest amount of time. From the beginning we were set up to work with and reach young children in all sorts of formats, and not only in the formal learning environment. That allowed us, throughout COVID-19, to relatively easily reach children and get books into their homes because we weren't reliant on the school as a channel. We reach children primarily through literacy promotion projects, like Nal'ibali or Word Works, Literacy Association of South Africa (Litasa) or Early Childhood Development (ECD) projects and networks or training organizations. Our partners – a list of which can be found on our website – were also able to deliver books directly to the home, which further consolidated our approach to turning the home into a space of literacy, reading and learning.

We have and continue to develop resources for working with parents and educating them on how and why they should read with their child as it allows the many hours that a child spends at home to also be opportunities for learning.  It will help with the learning losses that children have experienced during COVID-19. It’s always been part of our vision that every child should own a hundred books by the age of five, so we print and distribute enough books for each child to take books home to own. Because these books are individual resources rather than communal resources, we didn’t have to change anything to make sure there were enough physical books to go around during the pandemic.

An illustration showing a women in a blue t-shirt carrying a sleeping baby wrapped in a blanket on her back. The woman is giving a thumbs up. The accompanying text in Burmese says, “My son is sleeping”.

Book Dash books are available globally through various distribution partners like The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read initiative. The book pictured is called Shhhhh! and was created in English, in South Africa. It is now available in many different languages, including nine on this website alone, including Burmese (pictured), Lao and Kachin. Image source: Let's Read.

We are working actively with over 130 content partners, who use, adapt, share, print, and redistribute the Book Dash books and content and get them to families and children. When we talk to our partners, we have added a lot more emphasis about how to use our books, how to mediate them, and how to distribute the books to children in meaningful ways. Around the world we have content partners in Brazil, in Australia, in Papua New Guinea, in Laos, in remote parts of Italy, and in North America. We work with big hitters like the Global Digital Library, Story Weaver and World Reader, as well as small, localized partners. Going forward we will be actively focusing on tracking the reach of our books through our partnerships, so we can tell the story more clearly of how many children around the globe are interacting with and benefiting from the open license nature, and quality of the Book Dash books that we are producing. During COVID-19 our website users increased tenfold and haven't decreased since. So the online space that carries our free high quality resources has become relatively more important for us too.