In the wake of International Literacy Day, we are reminded both of the progress that has been made in increasing literacy in recent years and of the stark reality that 250 million children around the world are still unable to read, write, or do basic math. Numerous studies show that books, as part of a coherent reading instructional program, are one of the most cost-effective inputs to improving learning outcomes and that reading books specifically are essential to boosting literacy. Yet, despite decades of efforts by the development sector, country governments, and NGOs, books, particularly in mother tongue languages, are still not easily accessible to children in many countries.
Over the past year, Results for Development (R4D) and International Education Partners (IE Partners) conducted an in-depth study to examine why reading books are in short supply in many developing country classrooms and assessed the feasibility for a bold, new approach to improve book provision and literacy around the world. Our findings, the culmination of 13 country field studies and 350+ interviews with global, national, and local-level stakeholders, were shared last week and can be found here.
Our research highlights 5 main causes that contribute to the scarcity of appropriate reading books at the right level in the right languages:
Many children lack access to both reading books and textbooks. Reading books in mother tongue languages are particularly scarce as governments and parents often prioritize textbooks over reading books and books in international/regional languages over local languages, This leads to little to no availability of reading books and a crucial gap in building literacy in the early years. There is also little understanding of the importance of leveled and decodable readers in building the foundation for literacy in young children. For example, over the course of our interviews, we frequently heard anecdotes of parents reluctant to buy reading books due to the limited number of words on a page.
Our analysis suggests that low- and middle-income countries should spend US$3.1 billion - US$3.9 billion on reading books and textbooks annually. However, in 18 of the 32 countries analyzed, there is an approximate total annual financing gap of US$200 million. In countries where funding gaps exist, funding must be increased and/or spending efficiency improved.
Inefficient public procurement leads to higher costs, lower quality materials, and lack of a sustainable supply of reading books. Examples of challenges include unpredictable and irregular demand from the government, inadequate and fluctuating budgeting, insufficient planning, small print run sizes and fragmented printing, lack of transparency in procurement processes and awardee selection, use of uneconomical printers and inefficient book specifications, and delayed payments.
While the exact combination of supply chain issues may vary by country, recurring challenges include weak demand forecasting, poor management systems, lack of trained staff, inefficient distribution, unsuitable transportation, inadequate storage facilities both at the warehouse and school level, theft and corruption, and more. These challenges pose a significant hindrance to book provision: for instance, in some countries, loss of books in the supply chain can be as high as 67%.
Unfortunately, even where books do exist, they are often locked in cupboards or not used effectively. Reasons for this include poor book quality, an unreliable supply of books, and lack of teacher knowledge of how to effectively use books and set up classroom libraries.
There are a few reasons why traditional approaches have not succeeded in overcoming these complex challenges. First, efforts by governments, donors, and other NGOs have not been harmonized to the extent possible, thus leading to duplication of efforts, lost opportunities for collaboration, and wasted resources. Second, initiatives are often project-based and limited to short timeframes, leading to only temporary effects on book provision levels and little impact on the systems that allow the problems to persist. Third, due to competing priorities, these efforts have not been able to sufficiently fill the financing need for reading books.
In light of the limitations of past and current efforts, we believe a new global mechanism – the Global Book Alliance: Books for Every Child – could be instrumental in filling these gaps and advancing book provision where past efforts have fallen short. Our study recommends that the Global Book Alliance lead both global and country-level activities, including knowledge sharing on the effective development, procurement, distribution, and usage of all books; advocating for the importance of reading books; encouraging stakeholder coordination and policy dialogue; providing financing and access to technical assistance to improve national book chains; and where needed, funding reading books in mother tongue languages.
It’s time to step away from business as usual. Here is how you can help ensure every child has the books they need to learn to read:
Sonaly Patel is a Program Associate at Results for Development (R4D), where she works across the global education portfolio. She provided research and analytical support to the feasibility study. Additionally, Sonaly supports programmatic impact evaluations and funder strategy development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org