How to keep children reading during COVID-19

Words: David Risher

David Risher, CEO and Co-founder at W​orldreader, shares why the value of reading goes far beyond the simple enjoyment of a good story and explains how a new app is making it easier for children to keep reading and learning while they’re unable to go to school.

School closures are impacting more than 70% of the world’s student population. ​That’s a staggering 1.2 billion children out of school across over 170 countries. These last two months of school closures have been the biggest test of distance learning institutions and families have ever experienced. The burden of educating children outside a traditional school setting is felt by families across the globe as parents struggle to homeschool their children while also continuing to work themselves.

For many children in the Global North, while the transition to distance learning is hard, it’s supported by computers in the home and readily available WiFi. But for children in vulnerable and underserved communities in the Global South, the digital divide is more profoundly felt – laptops and reliable WiFi are scarce, particularly in homes.

However, mobile phones are everywhere. In fact, of the approximately seven billion people on Earth, more than six billion have access to mobile phones. We can keep children reading and learning with this technology; that’s exactly what Worldreader is trying to do with the recently launched Keep Children Reading ​initiative.

The Benefits of Reading

The benefits of reading are numerous – but I’ve listed a few below.

Influencing children’s vocabulary and language development.

Vocabulary development by age three has been found to predict reading achievement by Year 4 (third grade in the US). Vocabulary development comes from rich interaction between children and their parents or caregivers. Dialogic reading is key and children with parents who read, tell stories, or sing songs tend to develop larger vocabularies and become better readers. While overwhelming evidence exists from child development, the benefits of frequent reading continue throughout primary schools.

The foundation for future learning.

Low achievement in reading in early primary grades has disastrous long-term consequences. These knock-on effects touch all aspects of life including earning potential, competitiveness and productivity. Reading ability by Year 4 is a strong predictor of future academic success and achievement later in high school. As children grow, they are often read to less in both the home and classroom. This is a missed opportunity for growth as vocabulary used in books often surpasses vocabulary used in everyday conversation.

Reduces stress and improves empathy and bonding.

Living through a health crisis is stressful to say the least! Reading together for 15 minutes a day can reduce high-blood pressure and foster family/community cohesion during such times. What better excuse to revisit a favourite book?

Why we need to keep children reading

Worldreader’s ​Keep Children Reading​ initiative is rooted in both the evidence and experience that educational technology can play a key role in shaping learning during this crisis.

Mobile phone access is a lifeline during school closures and can contribute to a more levelled playing field. Digital books delivered on these devices can fill the instructional void many teachers and parents struggle to fill in this time of transition to distance learning.

As part of its Keep Children Reading initiative, Worldreader has made thousands of free books available – including books about the coronavirus – to readers in the Global South via the new BookSmart​ app for children and the Worldreader app​ for older students and young adults.

Another benefit of digital learning systems is that they provide data and insights – critical to understanding reading behaviours, especially during a global health crisis when students’ time in traditional classroom settings may be severely limited. Having the ability to measure students’ time-on-task, as well as books read, helps schools meet established learning outcomes for their students.

No matter where you live, it is imperative for all of us to keep the children in our lives reading. It’s essential for their brain development, their success in school, and their emotional well-being.

Luckily, millions of people have the tools already to do so. They just need to know about them, and be properly supported with new books, reading tips, and ongoing encouragement.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can help keep children reading, please contact Worldreader at info@worldreader.org​.

David Risher, Worldreader’s Chief Executive and co-founder, has led educational and large-scale technological advancement for over two decades. As general manager at Microsoft, he helped develop and market Microsoft’s first desktop database products and created some of the company’s first Internet-based services. As Amazon’s Senior Vice President for Retail, he grew the company from $16 million to $4 billion in sales and drove the company to its first profitable quarter.

In addition to leading Worldreader and serving on its Board, David is a member of the ESADE Business School’s International Advisory Board and Princeton University’s Comparative Literature Advisory Council. He speaks four languages and is an avid long-distance cyclist.