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Storybook Apps Turn African Learners Into Writers

By Busani Bafana

Suwaiba Hassan published an engrossing story. She used digital apps that are giving literacy a boost.

The student from Katsina State in Nigeria, Hassan, won a National Reading Competition for a story she created using the African Storybook reader app and the African Storybook maker app. Saide, an education NGO, developed the apps through its African Storybook (ASb) project.

The apps are easy-to-use storybook development tools allowing children to write and publish their own stories, which can be read and shared without internet connectivity.

‘Titi and Donkey, the trickster’ was written by Suwaiba Hassan, a student from Katsina State in Nigeria. Credit: ASB
Hassan turned to the online apps to help her write and publish her award-winning story – Titi and Donkey. The story is about a girl who narrowly escaped losing her grandmother’s money to a cunning donkey. Hassan wanted to inspire other girls to write and read in writing it. She did more. Her story motivated parents in her home state to encourage more girls to go to school after Hassan won a National Reading Competition and all expenses paid scholarships to cover all her education levels. Northern Nigeria has a high number of out-of-school children.

Conquering literacy one story at a time

The African Storybook Project has created a digital library of open license African storybooks to address the challenge of education inclusion and access to appropriate reading materials for young African children. It has been piloted in 15 African countries.

The applications are helping conquer illiteracy one story at a time by providing reading material in home languages that reflect local content for children to read, says Jenny Glennie, Saide Executive Director.

Reading is an important skill in the development of young learners. At a primary school in Gwanda, Zimbabwe, pupils enjoy a reading moment. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS
Saide contributes to the development of new open learning models, including the use of educational technology and open education resources in Sub Saharan Africa.

“We are promoting the idea that you have a publisher in your pocket and a library on your phone,” Glennie tells IPS.

On average, 2000 unique storybooks in 222 African languages have been published online, created mainly by students, teachers and librarians. More than 1.5 million children in Africa benefitted from the storybooks downloaded from the ASb website, especially after COVID-19 hit leading to the close of many schools.

The ASb project works with local educators and illustrators, including children, to develop, publish, and use relevant storybooks in children’s language.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), some 40 per cent of the global population does not access education in a language they understand.

UNESCO cautions that literacy promotion should be looked at from a perspective of multilingualism because several international and regional languages have expanded as lingua franca. In contrast, numerous minority and indigenous languages are endangered.

Literacy in local languages encourages reading and writing among learners because they use the material in their mother tongue every day, noted Belina Simushi, Education Programme Officer with the Impact Network Zambia, an education service provider operating schools in Zambia.

In Zambia, she said learners are taught in English, a foreign language.

“Our learners need books to be written in a local language, which I believe can act as a stepping stone for learning how to read and write,” said Simushi. She led a story-writing project in which teachers wrote over 300 storybooks they uploaded online using the ASb Storybook Maker and guide.

“I also believe that by accessing books written in Cinyanja [a language widely spoken in Zambia and Malawi], our learners can read about stories, cultures and other topics that can help them enjoy reading books and develop a love for reading books,”.

Righting illiteracy

According to the Lost Potential Tracker, nine out of 10 children in Sub Saharan Africa miss the age ten basic literacy milestones, according to the Lost Potential Tracker, an interactive analysis tool measuring the scale of the global learning crisis. The tool jointly created by the One Campaign, the Global Partnership for Education and Save the Children in 2021, shows the depth of the global learning crisis.

Alice Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education, says reading and writing are essential building blocks for children to succeed.

“This tool shows the depth of the global learning crisis – and what a critical situation the world faces if we do not prioritise education.”

While Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International, warned that the world faces an unprecedented education emergency worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Children in some of the poorest and conflict-affected countries are the most badly affected.

“If we are to live up to our commitments to achieving the full range of Sustainable Development Goals and the children’s right to education, then improving literacy levels is a must,” Ashing noted, emphasising that being able to read was a foundation skill that enabled children to realise their full potential.

The ASb apps have also opened new opportunities to promote and preserve some of Africa’s least spoken languages, which are on the verge of dying off because they are not written down, said Dorcas Wepukhulu, the East and West African Storybook Partner Development Coordinator at Saide.

“The apps have enabled a different learning process that goes beyond the usual stringing of words. It is motivating. The fact that the stories they have written can be published and read by others is something children are very proud of and want to do,” said Wepukhulu. She explained that they are encouraging many people across Sub Saharan Africa to use the apps while helping the marginalised talk about their experiences and boost languages that have not been published in creating reading materials.

Smangele Mathebula, African Storybook Partner Development Coordinator for Southern Africa, noted that the apps had given children a chance to be fully present as they interact with technology in sharing their experiences.

The African Storybook Story Maker App won the 2021 Tech4Good Awards in Education given by UK-based Tech4Good Awards. The awards celebrate fantastic businesses, individuals and initiatives that use digital technologies to improve the lives of others and make the world a better place. Saide was also voted the Winner of Winners in the virtual awards ceremony.

“Emerging as the Winner of Winners in this year’s awards reinforces our efforts to continue promoting the use of the Story Maker across Sub-Saharan Africa as a way of empowering children to tell their own stories and for communities to self-publish,” Glennie said.

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