Improving literacy around the world

The power of open-access digital content has the ability to revolutionize literacy education across the globe, according to one UBC scholar behind a collaborative initiative supporting multilingual children’s literacy in Africa.

“There isn’t any region in the world for which this would not be relevant,” says Dr. Bonny Norton, the project’s research advisor and professor in Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. She notes that there is no region currently – from First Nations Communities in Canada’s far north to Indigenous groups throughout Australia – that isn’t struggling with revitalizing or strengthening mother tongue languages.

The African Storybook Project, an open access interactive website that collects stories for download, upload and translation into a variety of African languages, is quickly gaining international momentum as more and more advocates for multilingualism learn about their innovative digital approach. All stories on the website are covered under Creative Commons licensing, allowing free adaptation.

In June, the website was formally launched with support from the European Union, after Comic Relief UK provided funding to the South African Institute for Distance Education (Saide) for this groundbreaking project. The user-friendly website now hosts more than 650 stories in 19 different African languages and English, translated from an original 120 stories.

What’s more, the African Storybook Project recently agreed to share the code behind their uploading and translation technology with Pratham Books, a community publisher in India interested in replicating the framework.

“We’re moving towards a multilingual world, and what we want is for people to maintain their mother tongue and learn languages of wider communication,” says Dr. Norton, who is also a Distinguished Scholar at the UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

Dr. Norton says that it’s the digital element of the project that has allowed so much potential for scalability, along with enabling UBC to be so actively involved with the project from such a great distance.

The African Storybook Project is currently focusing its grassroots research efforts in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, but is encouraging groups to start utilizing the website across sub-Saharan Africa, says Dr. Norton. Talks are underway with a group looking to add Kinyarwanda, an official language of Rwanda, translations to the database, and stories from Mozambique are being translated into Portuguese.

“People have said to us, ‘Oh, we can’t wait until the project comes to Ghana!’” she says. “We tell them the project’s already in Ghana."

“All they have to do is go to the English version, and then translate those English stories into all Ghanaian languages.”

Ultimately, Dr. Norton says the most important aspect of the project now is making sure the stories are of high quality, and are actually reaching children in Africa.

She says working with local teachers to help them make best use of these resources while forging connections with other groups working with a similar focus in Africa are key.