Last year  the UNESCO Institute for Statistic published alarming new estimates of the number of children that aren’t achieving the basics in reading and maths.

It showed that 387 million primary aged children will not acquire minimum reading levels. Disturbingly two-thirds of these children, some 262 million, are actually in school. Everyone now agrees that school does not equal learning and we urgently need to prioritise the implementation of evidence-based measures that improve learning outcomes.

The good news is that a relatively straightforward change can make a significant difference: a robust body of research has established that books in languages children use and understand are essential to literacy acquisition. UNESCO, the World Bank, and the International Commission for Financing Global Educational Opportunity have all called for the increased provision of books to improve learning.

Learning to read without books

There is no doubt that a lack of quality reading materials in a language that children understand is a significant barrier to children’s literacy.

In Malawi, there are approximately 2.2 million native speakers of Tumbuka and another 2.2 million speakers of Yao. However, there are fewer than 20 reading book titles available in either language, leaving nearly 25 percent of Malawi’s population without the materials necessary to acquire and sustain basic literacy.

The situation is repeated across the world with speakers of minority languages, the majority of whom are already disadvantaged, are unlikely to have access to books in their mother tongue. It is hard to imagine learning to read without access to books but that is in fact what we expect of millions of children around the world.

A new alliance dedicated to closing the book gap

Thankfully recognition of the challenge posed by a lack of books to early literacy is growing. Building on research and design work begun in 2015 a coalition of donors, multilateral agencies and non-government organisations have established the Global Book Alliance. Inspired by the work of organisations like GAVI to improve access to immunisation by transforming the vaccines supply chain the Global Book Alliance will take a similar approach.

Closing the children’s book gap’ the Alliance’s first strategic plan which we’re launching at UNESCO headquarters today as part of an event to mark Mother Language Day sets out priorities.

A global digital library

We aspire to allow anyone, anywhere to have access to quality, local language reading materials. A new Global Digital Library supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation will house at least 50,000 new titles in 100 languages. The books in the library will support early literacy development, prioritizing languages where there are few to no reading materials available. These resources will be open source via web, mobile and for print or translation -- and at no cost to the user.

We want to ensure that high quality children’s books in the languages that children speak at home are available for publication.

Supporting publishing

Books, however good they are, on a digital platform won’t make it in to the hands of children on their own. We recognise that the local publishing industry is key to increasing the volume of locally developed, high-quality titles for local publication and distribution.  

Regional and national publishing collaboratives will support the utilisation of material available in the Global Digital Library as well as the training of writers, illustrators and editors who can author, illustrate and edit new titles. The collaboratives will also support the development of a dynamic book sector, including book promotions and sales.

Supporting comprehensive action at the national level

The Alliance also aspires to implement country level programmes where these and other measures designed to close the children’s book gap are implemented at scale. Ensuring that every last child including children from ethnic minorities and indigenous communities, have access to high-quality, local language books at the right reading level, as well as the teaching and support they need to use them is critical to reversing the crisis in learning.

At Save the Children we’re very excited to be part of the Alliance. One of the 8 principles that we identified for effective literacy programming was the importance of ‘More and better books’. We see the creation of the Alliance as a central way to put that principle into practice.

The Alliance has an exciting opportunity to forge lasting change that will transform the lives of the world’s children and we are hoping that others will join us. Find out how at www.globalbookalliance.org

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Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly is the Chair of the Global Book Alliance and Head of Education Policy & Advocacy at Save the Children.