Let’s Read Dismantles Barriers to Literacy by Uniting Technology and Local Communities in Asia’s Free Digital Library for Children

San Francisco, April 15, 2019 — Today, The Asia Foundation unveiled Let’s Read, Asia’s free digital library for children, a locally-driven solution to book scarcity in Asia. During remarks delivered at the annual Comparative & International Education Society (CIES) conference in San Francisco, Director Melody Zavala, Associate Director Kyle Barker, and Program Specialist Morgan Belveal discussed the aim of the rapidly growing and unprecedented program. Let’s Read brings together the power of technology with local authors, illustrators, publishers, and translators to dismantle barriers to accessing local language books. A lack of access to these resources has prevented millions from reading and learning.

A new film, shot on location in Cambodia and Laos, explores how Let’s Read is building sustainable book ecosystems by advancing the skills of local book creators and a unique translation tool across Asia, while contributing directly to local economies. The film debuted at the CIES conference.

The gap between privileged and disadvantaged children is wider than ever. But Let’s Read is built on the power of The Book Effect: despite all we know about privilege, a child’s passion for reading is more predictive of their academic success than their family’s socioeconomic status. Children who develop a love of reading at an early age are more likely to read and write better, build their vocabulary, and comprehend more. The lifelong benefits books offer to children and families ripple beyond the home and into communities where they live: reading children become reading adults who are more likely to be employed and able to contribute to local economies.

Book scarcity exists in many parts of Asia, especially in remote, conflict, or post-conflict areas. In addition, publishing books for highly diverse populations of children across enormous geographical areas with many different languages is challenging and commercially nonviable for many publishers and cost prohibitive for NGOs.

In response, Let’s Read was created to cultivate in children a love of reading while also energizing communities by developing local writing and publishing ecosystems. The innovative and highly scalable model is built on a platform developed by The Asia Foundation in San Francisco and Nepal. Asia Foundation offices and partners coordinate BookLabs to produce open license books. Translation events adapt, in real time, books on the platform into other local languages. In the past 12 months, Let’s Read convened hundreds of young creators and translators in multiple countries, building the library to more than 2,000 books in 20 languages. In 2018 nearly 90,000 books were read, and the library is now accessed in over 100 countries.

“Our mission is to develop curious and educated readers and create thriving societies, and we want to hear from organizations that would like to adapt Let’s Read and grow their impact,” said Zavala. “With Let’s Read, we are uniting technology with local talent across Asia to create an unprecedented digital library in languages that children need. All the books can be accessed for free on mobile phones or tablets or printed and read offline. At the same time, we are dismantling barriers to literacy by building sustainable book ecosystems of young illustrators and authors passionate about the value of reading.”

David Arnold, president of The Asia Foundation added: “A shortage of material published in local languages continues to create a cycle of illiteracy, but we are in the midst of reversing this trend. Using our free Let’s Read library app, children can now find books in languages they speak and understand. We are pleased to announce that we are successfully supporting new communities of young professionals interested in literature and new avenues to publishing.”

“Children need books with characters, themes, and settings that reflect and affirm their lives and provide opportunities to explore the world,” said Belveal. In a new piece which will be published on The Asia Foundation’s highly respected blog, InAsia, he argues, “When children are able to find themselves on the pages of books, they begin to find confidence in their own identity and their potential to contribute to society.”

In the film, audiences meet local writers and illustrators in Cambodia as they prepare for a Let’s Read BookLab with a published children’s book author and editor from Vietnam. A young Cambodian writer, Seiha, enthuses on camera that because scripting children books requires clarity and succinctness, “I have become more capable in writing clearer and delivering better stories.” A moment later, viewers meet Tanout, a university student in Laos with a love of languages who translates storybooks from English to Lao and Thai to Lao. In another sequence, a young reader navigates through the Let’s Read digital library to choose a book that interests her in her native language, Khmer.

The film includes an on-location interview with Barker, who says: Let’s Read “is the only free region-wide digital library available— but we knew that wasn’t enough. We built it to be scalable and to be able to tap into the vast amount of talent that exists in Asia.”

Let’s Read is a rapidly growing digital initiative of The Asia Foundation. The program draws on the development organization’s 18 offices in the region and local deep ties to build an unprecedented digital library of local language children’s books. Stories in the library explore topics such as environmental stewardship, diversity, tolerance, gender and STEM. The program is nurturing reading habits that enable children to reach important developmental milestones while cultivating sustainable networks of book creators and translators for children’s content.

The Asia Foundation is a nonprofit international development organization committed to improving lives across a dynamic and developing Asia. Informed by six decades of experience and deep local expertise, our work across the region addresses five overarching goals—strengthen governance, empower women, expand economic opportunity, increase environmental resilience, and promote regional cooperation.

Read more about the Foundation’s work.

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Related locations: San Francisco
Related programs: Books for Asia
Related topics: Let's Read

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