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Time to unleash the power of books

Samrawit, Mahlet and Belaynesh in the Amhara region of Ethiopia (photo: Colin Crowley/Save the Children)

As someone who grew up in the UK, having access to books at home, in school and at my local library was something I took for granted. As a child, I always had a stack of books on the go, to the extent that I truly believed I was the real life Matilda – sadly without the magical powers.

But too many children around the world aren’t so lucky – 250 million primary-school-age children cannot read. Worryingly, 130 million of these children can’t read despite completing four years of education. This will limit their options and opportunities for the rest of their lives.

Improving literacy is crucial if we’re to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But it won’t happen if children don’t have access to good-quality books.

The book gap

Books are one of the most cost-effective ways to help children improve their reading skills, not to mention providing hours of pleasure and new worlds of knowledge and experience. Yet in classroom after classroom, many children lack access to books.

For example, a recent UNESCO survey in Africa showed that in most countries primary school children have to share textbooks. In some countries, four or more pupils have to share a single maths or reading book. In Cameroon, on average, 14 pupils have to share one maths textbook.

Even where books are available, there’s a shortage of age-appropriate material that reflects the local context and enables children to build on familiar concepts and images.

Access to books is a key equity issue. Children from wealthier backgrounds and those who speak majority languages are far more likely than their peers to have reading materials available to them. This matters, because we will not achieve the ambitious SDG of quality education for all unless we reach every last child.

Lessons in literacy

The ‘book gap’ was highlighted in a recent Save the Children report. Lessons in Literacy sets out the eight principles of effectively promoting literacy, synthesising our learning from delivering literacy interventions in many different contexts around the world.

One of these principles is to ensure that children have better access to quality books because of their importance in improving children’s literacy. This was echoed in a recent report by global NGO Results for Development.

Weaknesses in the book chain

In many countries there are weaknesses throughout the book supply chain, from publisher to child. Small national publishing industries struggle to survive. They earn most of their revenue through textbook sales, leaving a scarcity of children’s storybooks and graded reading series. Many lack the skills to effectively tailor reading materials for different age groups and/or languages.

Schools often fail to acquire the books that are available due to lack of funds or poor understanding of procurement systems. Even when schools and communities do have books, teachers and parents may lack the skills to use them as effective teaching aides. Save the Children has found that for cultural or administrative reasons, books are often locked away and children cannot access them outside of formal lessons.

The solution? A ‘whole-chain’ approach

So what can be done to improve the supply of quality books to children around the world?

Save the Children’s response is the International Children’s Book Initiative. Taking a ‘whole-chain’ approach, it examines every step of a book’s journey from authorship to child, and puts in place measures to ensure effective and equitable production, distribution and use.

We work with governments and publishers to increase the supply of children’s books and adapt existing books, to cultivate vibrant national publishing industries and provide a steady stream of new local-language titles. We purchase reading materials in bulk from publishers who know how to produce quality and context-appropriate books.

This approach moves away from direct book production by NGOs. Instead it emphasises the need to strengthen the local publishing industry, guaranteeing the supply of local-language, contextually relevant reading materials to support a culture of reading.

The need for a new mechanism – the Global Book Alliance

The book gap is also gaining more attention from key international donors and agencies. A recent report by Results for Development makes the case for a new mechanism – the Global Book Alliance – to improve the supply of books.

The Global Book Alliance would be a collaborative, multi-partner initiative working to ensure that all children have access to books, particularly in their own language.

It could play a critical role at both global and national level in increasing funding, raising awareness and improving the provision and use of both textbooks and reading books. The establishment of an operational and fully funded Global Book Alliance over the next couple of years would be a positive step.

Access to books alone won’t solve the learning crisis, but without improvements in the supply of quality and context-appropriate books, children – especially the most marginalised – will find it harder to learn how to read and develop this invaluable life-skill.


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