Benetech-led project exceeds goals and delivers 1,295 accessible ebooks to 131 students with visual impairments to improve reading skills.
Suraj is eight years old and in the third standard at the School for Blind Boys in Bhosari, a suburb of Pune, in the Maharashtra state of India. Children who are blind or have low vision like Suraj face many obstacles. Most classrooms lack accessible reading materials that allow students to learn at their own pace through braille reading and listening to audiobooks. In developing countries such as India, those obstacles are multiplied. That’s why USAID and World Vision issued a challenge in 2014 to improve the reading scores of primary school children in the developing world through the use of technology-based solutions.
Early Reading Challenge
The most optimal way for Suraj and his classmates to learn how to read is to listen to a book narrated in their vernacular language while following along in braille. It is a challenge, however, to deliver accessible books in mother tongue languages where no text-to-speech (TTS) engine exists to read these books aloud, and the cost of creating a high-quality TTS engine is extremely high.
From January 2015 to June 2017, Benetech answered that challenge. The first aspect of the project involved leveraging technology to convert educational content to human-narrated audio in Marathi, the primary language in the Maharashtra state. This audio capability was added to Bookshare, Benetech’s library of accessible ebooks for people who are blind or unable to read standard print, to provide students with digital audio files they could listen to on low-cost audio players.
Solution Leverages Technology and Instruction
In addition, Benetech staff developed strong partnerships with five conversion house partners, 83 publishers, and an advisory committee to help identify age-appropriate books. The initial goal was to add 500 books, and the team is pleased to report that it achieved 244% of that goal, adding a total of 1,295 relevant children’s books in Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, Telugu, and English.
The second aspect involved reading instruction for 131 students who are blind or have low vision in Grades 2 and 3 at four schools in Maharashtra, India. The Story Uncle/Auntie, a Benetech contractor, visited the schools once or twice each week to lead students in thirty minutes of guided reading. They used handheld teaching tools called slate and cube kits to expose students to basic reading and writing concepts in braille, concentrating on words already familiar to students. The Story Uncle/Auntie guided students on using DAISY Plextalk players to listen to audiobooks as they followed along in braille storybooks. Teachers also introduced daily independent reading time which encouraged students to practice on their own.
Impact on Reading Performance
A team from School-to-School International evaluated the project and found that students showed significant improvement on all reading assessment tasks. These improvements occurred across gender, grade, and vision levels.
“What was most satisfying was to observe children and their teachers accepting and using new technology in the classroom: reading using the standalone DAISY player, which was their first step forward into the digital world. They started to ask more questions about reading and the content in the books. And, they became more curious about other tech devices and asked for mobile phones, tablets, and laptops to be given with Bookshare. It was wonderful to see their excitement grow as time passed.” – Dr. Homiyar Mobedji, Disability Expert, India Program Manager
On the Horizon
As funding permits, Benetech plans to continue working with the four schools in Pune and expand into other schools. Potential plans include:
- Pursue partnerships with schools serving students with learning disabilities
- Create a volunteer program for Story Uncles and Aunties
- Secure an institutional partnership with a college that offers a teaching credential in order to have teaching credential candidates volunteer with Benetech in exchange for course credit
- Work with local publishers and conversion houses to increase production of TTS books in vernacular languages
Benetech would like to acknowledge the generous contributions of our partners and funders who made this work possible: USAID, World Vision, Pratham Books, University Research Co. LLC, Access Braille, Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged, NAB Delhi, DAISY Forum of India, and our book conversion vendors Cygnet Infotech, Veda Enterprise, AccessDeeds, and Indic Institute.
Visit the Benetech Resources page to download the full All Children Reading report.
About All Children Reading
Launched in 2011 by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), World Vision and the Australian Government, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development is an ongoing series of grant and prize competitions that leverage science and technology to source, test, and disseminate scalable solutions to improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries.