The App That Changes Everything?

The App That Changes Everything?

It seems like every few weeks now we hear about some exciting new innovation in computer technology—a brand-new application that (at least according to the advertising hype) will upend life as we know it. For the deaf and hearing-impaired of the world, the Live Transcribe app Google rolled out in limited beta on Monday, February the 4th, certainly seems to be just such an earth-shaking new tool.

But is it really…?

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Now THAT'S a library!

Now THAT'S a library!

The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. is easily the largest library in the entire world. It has over 167 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. If you walked for ten hours a day, it’d take you a month to walk past all those bookshelves. Pick even one category—say, comic books—and it would be impossible to read through the Library of Congress’s entire catalog in one lifetime (they have 120,000 comic books, and growing).

The Library of Congress is clearly a superlative institution, so when they choose to honor an organization at their yearly Literacy Awards, it’s a sign that that organization has made a significant impact in the quest to wipe out global illiteracy…

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When Common Goals Unite

Pakistan, being a country with a long, rich history, has no shortage of stories, but unfortunately they have not been written down nor printed for teaching children to read. The ASER 2015 report found that 84% of students in Class 3 could not read a story in Urdu, the national language, Sindhi or Pashto. Textbooks for teaching reading are important but ineffective without the support of additional reading material like storybooks in classrooms. Yet most Pakistani classrooms are not equipped with educational materials that promote reading.

USAID has two reading projects in Pakistan currently. First, the Pakistan Reading Project (PRP) which is a national reading program to improve teacher training and the availability of materials that supplement reading textbooks. The hope for the project is that teachers will be better trained to teach reading but also to improve access to materials through libraries in classrooms and even mobile libraries that will reach 300 communities. The project could reach as many as 23,800 teachers in public schools with improved skills in teaching reading in the national language of Urdu and also assessing their classrooms.

Norbert Rennert, a researcher at the Canada Institute of Linguistics and the creator of SynPhony technology, was able to share SynPhony with those training teachers in the Pakistan Reading Project. Because learning in Pakistan often involves rote memorization and copying text books, retention and comprehension is very low. Putting together new phonics methods and materials is difficult with lesser studied languages. SynPhony was created to do the analytics necessary to determine the order that letters and sounds should be taught to create effective teaching and reading materials.

Similarly the second USAID project in Pakistan—the Sindhi Reading Program—aims to address critical issues in early-grade reading and mathematics through continuous teachers’ professional development, improving assessment, distributing supplementary materials, and encouraging family participation. The Sindh province of Pakistan is the second largest region of the country and there are 18 million Sindhi people throughout the whole country. Sadly illiteracy is quite high in the mother tongue and about 4 million Sindhi children aged 5-12 are not even in school.

“Sindhi is a very old language and has a rich literary history,” observed Norbert Rennert recently. “I was impressed with the way the Sindhi speakers love their language and seem to be very determined to make sure it stays alive and vibrant.”

Rennert also went to Pakistan last year to facilitate a training for the Sindhi Reading Program. There he was able to meet a group of Sindhi speakers and share with them how SynPhony is being used to create curriculum for their schools.

The group in that Norbert spoke to in this training had gathered to develop literacy standards for Sindhi. And they responded with much enthusiasm and appreciation to know that, despite being a stranger to the Sindhi people, Norbert created SynPhony with people just like them in mind. The common goal of helping children to learn to read and write in their mother tongue brings together many people, crossing language and cultural boundaries.

To learn more about SynPhony visit

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When Children Need Books: Part 3

SIL LEAD is dedicated to helping communities use their languages to improve their quality of life. One way that we do that is by helping children learn to read in those languages. We are not the only ones engaged in this work, and this post, the last of three, will compare the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL) and the African Storybook Project (ASP).


To fully understand the uses of the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL) and the African Storybook Project (ASP), it helps to compare them. Their biggest difference lies in their goals. ICDL focuses on providing quality multicultural children’s literature. ASP focuses more on quantity, making a larger volume of literature available in under-resourced languages.

Search options in International Children's Digital Library. 

Search options in International Children's Digital Library. 

Another large difference is in the user interfaces. ICDL contains multiple ways to read, allows users to layer searches, and offers its interface in six different languages. The interface for the ASP is functional but still under construction. Users can search for books by language, type of story, and text level.

Currently, there are about 4,619 books in the ICDL, and about 2,412 in the ASP. While numbers are impressive for online collections, they are only a fraction of the 12,000 books available in a typical American school library. However, ASP’s collection is growing rapidly, with the number of texts increasing by about 70% in as little as four months. Because of the emphasis on quality, ICDL’s collection is growing more slowly, and activity on the site dropped precipitously after 2011. Still, both collections provide reading material for students that might otherwise have trouble getting reading material. Such students include Lumasaaba-speaking children in Uganda, who can now access 69 books on the ASP website. It also includes American students who speak Farsi with their parents, and who can now access 476 books on the ICDL website.

An example of the reading view on African Storybook Project.

An example of the reading view on African Storybook Project.

Getting books into the hands of children who need them most is still a challenge. Many children who need reading material the most have the least access to computers. ICDL contains copyrighted material, so nothing on the site may be printed or distributed. It is encouraging that ASP allows all of its materials to be downloaded for printing and other forms of distribution, but it is still a concern that books are only formatted for digital reading. In order to print and bind books well, users must reformat the pictures and text themselves to fit into the layout that they want. ASP is also using memory cards to distribute materials for reading on cell phones, which are popular in Africa. The project also suggests that the books be displayed using projectors in school classrooms, which may be more affordable than printing books for classroom use.


You can read more detailed descriptions of the two projects in the first and second parts of Children Need Books series.

Thank you to our contributing author Megan Sutton Mercado.

When Children Need Books: Part 2

SIL LEAD is dedicated to helping communities use their languages to improve their quality of life. One way that we do that is by helping children learn to read in those languages. We are not alone in this work, and this post, the second of three, will focus on the second project that helps children read in a variety of languages by providing them with greater access to books.

The African Storybook Project

There is a severe lack of children’s literature in African languages, and that can hinder children from gaining enough reading practice to be fluent readers. The African Storybook Project (ASP) seeks to remedy that by creating a collection of simple, interesting stories to help African children develop a love for reading. It began in 2013 with funding from the UK-based organization Comic Relief, and is hosted by the South African Institute for Distance Education (Saide). The project is partnering with organizations in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, and Haiti to create stories in languages and contexts that will be familiar to African children.

The project’s main goal is to create early reading books in local African languages. The website features folktales, stories set in contemporary Africa, songs, poems, riddles, and rhymes, with an emphasis on stories. The target audience is children ages 2–10, so all stories on the website are illustrated because of the crucial role pictures play in supporting early reading. The project focuses on very early reading books that feature a single word per page up to two to three paragraphs per page, as this is where the need is greatest

The library function enables users to sort the site’s books by language, reading level, or literary category. The variety of languages is impressive, with African languages composing about 75% of the collection. The five most common languages include English (498), Afrikaans (250), isiZulu (105), Kiswahili (121), and Luganda (103). English is the official language of several African countries, and stories in languages such as English and French provide a useful foundation for later translations into other African languages.

Beyond simply serving as a library, the site provides tools for creating and deriving new stories.  Easy templates are available for authors to use in writing and illustrating children’s stories. I’ve tried this and was able to create a simple, illustrated story in less than an hour. Once the books are written, authors can upload the books to the website to be published under a Creative Commons license.  Stories that are already available on the website can be downloaded, translated into other African languages, and uploaded to the website for further use. The templates also allow for stories to be published at different grade levels by varying the number of words per page. Access to the website is free, but users are responsible for their own distribution process, whether digital or on paper.

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The site has seen impressive growth in the number of books available. In April of 2015, there were 1,399 books available in 41 languages. Now, just four months later, there are 2,412 books available in 58 languages, a growth of 72% and 41% respectively. Given the versioning tools on the website, many of these may be adaptations rather than new works, but the capacity for growth is encouraging. If you’re a writer or illustrator with an African story to tell, or can translate stories into an African language, you can be part of this movement to provide books for African children. The project has even grown beyond the continent to the Global African Storybook Project, where stories from the website are translated into languages from other regions.

You can read about a similar project in the first part of When Children Need Books. And come back soon for the final post, which will compare them side-by-side.

Thank you to our contributing author Megan Sutton Mercado.

When Children Need Books: Part 1

SIL LEAD is dedicated to helping communities use their languages to improve their quality of life. One way that we do that is by helping children learn to read in those languages. The creation of Bloom by our partner SIL International has made it dramatically easier to create the books people need to practice reading. Bloom has received a great deal of attention for winning the All Children Reading contest this year, and we look forward to seeing how it will empower local authors. 

However, we are not the only organization that is working on creative solutions to get children reading in a variety of languages. Below in this first post, you can read about the International Digital Children’s Library. Next week we will talk about the African Storybook Project, and the third part of this series will compare these two projects—their content and interfaces. We hope that these descriptions will help you get a better idea of the solutions that already exist, and the work that remains to get all children reading well.

The homepage and a sample storybook page from We will look at this project in the next blog post. 

The homepage and a sample storybook page from We will look at this project in the next blog post. 

The International Children’s Digital Library

Displaying two pages of a bilingual storybook on childrenslibrary.or. The story is written in Tagalog on the left and English on the right. 

Displaying two pages of a bilingual storybook on childrenslibrary.or. The story is written in Tagalog on the left and English on the right. 

This first project is the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL), which was created by an interdisciplinary team at the University of Maryland composed of computer scientists, librarians, teachers, and graphic designers. Their mission “is to support the world's children in becoming effective members of the global —who exhibit tolerance and respect for diverse cultures, languages and ideas—by making the best in children's literature available online free of charge.”

The project only accepts physically published books, some of which are under copyright. Books are chosen by educators, children, authors, and publishers, then scanned and added to the database. Website visitors can view digital copies of these books on the website, using a highly developed reading interface. The project does not support downloading, copying, or printing any of the materials in the collection. The site launched in 2002 and has had more than three million unique visitors since then. The collection contains 4,619 books in 59 languages, with users from 228 countries.

Reading a book in Gujarati using ICDL’s online interface

Reading a book in Gujarati using ICDL’s online interface

Although the project succeeds at providing digital images of the content of books for free, more books are available in languages and regions where they are less needed. Stated another way, the site provides more advantages to children who are already in more advantaged situations. The presence of effective publishing industries or non-profit sectors making high-quality books in North America, Europe, and selected Asian countries leads to a higher proportion of materials coming from these regions. The site hosts 975 books from Asia, 469 from North America, and 405 from Europe but only 103 from South America, 60 from Africa, and 53 from Australia/Oceania. Additionally, ICDL’s original goal was to provide 10,000 free books in 1000 languages. They achieved almost 50% of their goal for the number of titles, but just over 5% of their goal for the number of languages before the project’s activity declined. “Current news” postings on the website are abundant from 2002 to 2010, then drop off sharply, with the last one occurring in 2013, likely indicating that funding and interest have slowed in the last few years. The site is a useful tool as it is, but no longer seems to be growing.

Come back soon for the next post in our When Children Need Books series, which will address the African Storybook Project.

Thank you to our contributing author Megan Sutton Mercado.



Congratulations Bloom!

We are very pleased to announce that Bloom has been named the grand prize winner of the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) Enabling Writers Prize Competition funded by USAID, World Vision, and Australian Aid. The goal of the competition was to incentivize the development of software which makes it easy to create and export decodable and leveled fiction and nonfiction readers in mother tongue languages. After field testing in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Jordan, SIL International’s Bloom software was found to best meet the goals of the competition with the highest usability and functionality scores.

Simplicity has always been a key feature in Bloom’s development. Children in early grades, just learning to read, do not need complicated books. They need simple books with content that is relevant to their own culture and language. The process for creating these books should be as simple as possible too. The hope is that Bloom will empower and enable anyone to write many books, especially people from minority language communities. The lack of texts and storybooks often hinders literacy in minority language communities. With its ease-of-use, anyone with very basic computer skills can create an endless number of books. Users anywhere can also draw on the growing library of template books to adapt them to their local language and context.

With new feedback from the competition’s testing, the team looks forward to further improving the functions of Bloom. One improvement is that there will now be two ways to determine a “decodable” book. Bloom was first developed, with the help of SynPhony, to help define what letters and sight words are appropriate for a particular grade level. As a book is written, the software highlights words and letters that are beyond the intended grade level for that book.

One of the competition test sites showed that users wanted to be able to first input the “allowable” words for each grade level and then build stories using only words from that list. This method is unusual and was not anticipated by the Bloom developers. But in response to the testing results this option was added. Users will now be prompted to choose one of the two methods, and then Bloom will walk them through their chosen approach.

Congratulations to John Hatton and his the Bloom team; Norbert Rennert who added much value to Bloom with his SynPhony literacy tool; and everyone at SIL International and beyond who made Bloom the success it is and will continue to be. We at SIL LEAD are thankful to have been a part of the effort and look forward to many more children having books to read in their mother tongue thanks to the generous grand prize awarded to Bloom by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development.

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