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Apps provide entry to the joy of reading

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In celebration of International Literacy Day yesterday, Google and GE announced applications that aim to expand reading ability across the world.

International Literacy Day was established by the United Nations and this year it focused on “Literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond”, especially on the role of educators and changing pedagogies.

To mark the day, Internet search giant Google yesterday announced it is upscaling Read Along, a speech-based reading app designed to help primary school children learn to read.

Similarly, the WGI Worldwide Company and GE announced the launch of Lyra, an app-based education platform that uses innovative advanced speech recognition and touch-screen analysis to teach reading and writing.

According to the United Nations, globally, 773 million adults and young people lack basic literacy skills, and 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics.

It notes that during the initial phase of the pandemic, schools were closed, disrupting the education of 62.3% of the world’s student population of 1.09 billion.

The UN adds that adult literacy and education were absent in initial education response plans, therefore many youth and adults with no or low literacy skills have had limited access to life-saving information.

Enriching and rewarding

In a statement, Google says Read Along, formerly known as Bolo, acts as a personal reading tutor for children.

It uses speech-based technology to provide personalised assistance during a student’s reading journey, correcting them when they need help and encouraging them when they get it right.

Students select stories to read from an app-based library and earn stars and badges when they read correctly.

After an initial download, the app works offline, even on low-cost phones, making it more accessible and relieving concerns around privacy and security, says Google.

It adds that the Read Along app now includes improved features that make it easier for multilingual children to switch languages or get phonics support when they tap a word.

Google notes the app also has more than 700 unique books across nine international languages (including Spanish, Portuguese and Hindi) as well as a refreshed new look for the content library.

“Google is taking the education journey back to basics by providing a digital platform that will make learning to read simpler and fun, especially in the light of COVID-19-related school closures,” says Mich Atagana, Google’s South Africa head of communications and public affairs.

“At Google, we believe technology can help children around the world learn how to read to help achieve the goal of basic universal literacy.”

Mobile generation

Meanwhile, co-developed by WGI and GE, the Lyra app will initially teach users how to read and write in English, and will be offered free to people most in need of literacy skills.

The app’s 26 modules are based on the evidence-based synthetic phonics approach to literacy and build on the foundation of WGI’s six years of in-person education.

“We realised that while there will never be enough teachers, there are enough mobile devices, and they are already in the hands of people who can benefit from literacy training,” says Chance Wilson, WGI chairman, CEO and founder.

“We worked quickly to bring on new teachers and set up programmes in new communities; we wanted to do more given the urgent need.”

Wilson, who set up WGI six years ago as a 14-year-old middle school student, says he is passionate about bringing literacy to as many people as possible.

At first, he set up in-person classes in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Once established there, he set about developing plans for national and global impact, which eventually saw a partnership with GE blossom through GE’s global network of volunteers and software developers.

Now, Wilson and GE are aligned that moving into the digital world could not be more important.

Nabil Habayeb, president and CEO of GE Global, says: “Looking at the impact this app has the potential to make around the world, GE is fully supportive of this effort.

“With so many people isolated and in need of developing new skills, Lyra can help meet a critical demand in underserved communities that have little or no access to literacy resources – a situation made even more dire in the wake of COVID-19.”

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