Reading can change lives. “Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. … When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror,” says Rudine Sims Bishop, a former professor at Ohio State University.
Through reading, we see new vistas and we see ourselves anew. Beyond places of imagination, reading can transform us, quite literally. Literacy is a stepping-stone to the skills, understanding and pleasure that education brings. If you’re able to read, all other learning opens up for you.
Reading boosts an individual’s chances of securing a job and earning a higher wage. And for communities, better literacy rates are associated with healthier populations, less crime, greater economic growth and higher employment rates.
Yet worldwide at least 773 million people now lack basic literacy skills (including 250 million children) according to UNESCO, a number that has grown during the pandemic. In the U.S., initial reading scores for 9-year-old students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) taken during the pandemic revealed drops by the largest margin in over 30 years.
Related: Plunging NAEP scores make clear the long and difficult road ahead to pandemic recovery
So after honoring International Literacy Day and its theme of changing literary spaces, we need to take a closer look at where and how we learned during the pandemic, and what we can do to improve literacy going forward.
One way is to reimagine the places where reading happens, such as homes, schools and community spaces.
We should also reimagine how we learn, by encouraging learning that isn’t one-size-fits-all, but gives support that is based on the needs of individuals — especially those who are most vulnerable to being left behind.
Related: OPINION: Former middle school teacher says older students aren’t getting the reading help they need
Tailoring teaching to the individual makes learning more fun, so that literacy becomes a passport instead of a ceiling.
Perhaps most importantly, our solutions cannot rely on suddenly being able to bridge the technology gap.
We know that some learning environments adapted to the pandemic by connecting students online, challenging as this sometimes was. Education in those environments fared better than in the many places that didn’t have access to any digital technology at all.
The good news is that while we can’t give all students smartphones, they can still benefit from smart thinking. Here are some examples of how educational innovation can make a real difference:
Literacy is a stepping-stone to the skills, understanding and pleasure that education brings. If you’re able to read, all other learning opens up for you.
To start with, the latest scientific research can transform teaching approaches. Take the work of our Yidan Prize laureate, Professor Usha Goswami, which reveals the roots of language disorders and how to identify them. Her neuroscience research suggests that rhythm is the key to how children learn and process speech.
This knowledge is arguably more powerful than any individual gadget. It unlocks the potential for a whole new way of tailored teaching that could benefit millions worldwide.
Or look at the nonprofit Pratham, which provides quality education to children in India and is one of the largest and most successful nongovernmental education organizations in the country. Led by Yidan Prize laureate Rukmini Banerji, this foundation is reshaping education systems across India and Africa.
Pratham’s approach is simple but also profound — don’t teach based on age, but by each child’s individual learning needs. Rather than teaching a standard curriculum, Pratham’s Teaching at the Right Level program focuses on giving children essential life skills at a pace and starting level that are appropriate for each child.
Last year, during the pandemic, Pratham sent text messages with ideas for lessons to parents who were teaching their children at home. They also organized nearly 30,000 “mini learning camps” for children in grades 3 to 6. These camps brought together children and community members, such as young volunteers, to use simple activities and easily accessible materials to teach basic reading.
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Yidan Prize laureate and founder of the international nonprofit BRAC, understood the principle that poverty is a situation, not an identity. His vision was to work with people living in extreme poverty and give them tools to change their lives.
BRAC’s early childhood learning program allows millions of marginalized children to receive high-quality learning experiences irrespective of their financial background. BRAC also created scalable learning-through-play programs across Bangladesh, Uganda and Tanzania.
BRAC never gives up, no matter the situation. They named their pandemic response program “Pashe Achhi,” which means “by your side” in Bengali — and that’s exactly where the team has been for families in Rohingya camps, offering educational and emotional support during the pandemic, even when facing disasters like devastating local fires.
Related: OPINION: We need reading instruction that starts later and continues far, far longer
What do all these approaches have in common?
In short, people power. They all show a commitment to leaving no child behind, even in the toughest times. Low cost and low technology, but big initiative. Big thinking. Big commitment. And perhaps most importantly, they can be scaled and adapted relatively quickly and easily, so that the lessons we learn in one community can quickly start to benefit students in another.
Post-pandemic, with literacy numbers falling and the privilege gap widening, they have never been more needed.
So, in the wake of International Literacy Day, let’s commit to reimagining the places where reading happens and how readers learn in them. With creative thinking and big commitment, we can stop imagining a world with 100 percent literacy — because we’ll be making it a reality instead.
Edward Ma is secretary general of the Yidan Prize Foundation. The Yidan Prize recognizes individuals and teams who have contributed significantly to education research and development.
This story about literacy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.