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Sharing the joy of reading with children during a pandemic

  • November 24, 2020
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Unprecedented. The new normal. Social distancing. Schools closed. Work-from-home.

What a year it’s been. Who would have imagined that the world would be faced with the situation we are in today? At Pratham Books, our mission since we began 16 years ago is to get ‘a book in every child’s hand’. As we continue to strive to reach every child with the magic of storybooks in mother tongue languages, and as we continue to push the boundaries with themes and topics that our storybooks tackle, we had to really step out of our comfort zones and think out of the box as the Covid pandemic changed the world around us overnight.

As schools in India and around the world closed indefinitely in March 2020, we, along with many others were left wondering how to continue to reach children who were now at home because schools closed. Five years ago, we opened the doors to the magical world of storybooks through StoryWeaver, a digital platform providing access to thousands of multilingual storybooks for children, furthering our mission of ‘a book in every child’s hand’. Through StoryWeaver, every child can access an endless stream of storybooks in her mother tongue to read and enjoy.

This year, as the Covid-19 pandemic changed the entire learning model for children of all ages, we launched Learn at Home on StoryWeaver, a special initiative supporting parents and educators to discover ways for children to keep learning and reading even while they were away from school. Learn at Home offers storybooks and activities for children in preschool up to grade 8, curated grade-wise and thematically. So educators and parents can select the right set of books based on their child’s reading level or grade, and are spoiled for choice with themes and categories!

Beyond the online world, the current shift to online schooling has created a digital divide between children who have access to the Internet and smartphones and those who don’t. At Pratham Books, we remain mindful and cognisant of this widening gap, especially because our mission from day one has always been to share the joy of reading with every child. Research shows that one out of every two children in India cannot read at his or her grade level. This reading gap affects learning outcomes right through a child’s educational journey, impacting how a child grasps concepts and questions the status quo, and even if that child moves on to higher education.

And so we relaunched Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno! in April 2020, where hundreds of free audio stories for children were made available to listen to on the phone, in English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada, absolutely FREE. The beauty of Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno! is that it doesn’t require a smartphone or Internet access – with just a simple missed call, any child anywhere in India can listen to delightful stories with just a basic feature phone!

The response to Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno! surprised us. Over two months from when the lockdown began, 1,60,000 children called in and listened to 3,60,000 audio stories. The tremendous response showed that the time for this campaign was right, and that it was indeed helping to spread the joy of reading to children across the length and breadth of India. 

And we didn’t stop there. Goshticha Shaniwar, a reading programme implemented by StoryWeaver in partnership with UNICEF, Maharashtra State Council of Educational Research & Training (MSCERT) and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Maharashtra was co-created and designed to instil the joy of reading by providing quality reading material every week to students from grades 1 to 8, reaching 65,000 schools across the state of Maharashtra. Content is disseminated via WhatsApp to teachers, who then use online and offline channels to ensure that all students can access storybooks even if they do not have access to digital technology. Every week students receive book posters, digital storybooks and an accompanying activity.

Many of the things we had taken for granted in past years, were not possible this year. One such initiative was One Day, One Story, our highly anticipated annual storytelling campaign celebrating International Literacy Day on September 8th. Typically One Day, One Story would see thousands of volunteer-driven storytelling sessions happen all over India and the world, around the storybooks selected for that year. Last year, children everywhere put on their dancing shoes with Gappu Can’t Dance written by Menaka Raman and illustrated by Krishna Chandran, and shattered gender stereotypes with The Weightlifting Princess, written by Sowmya Rajendran and illustrated by Debasmita Dasgupta. 

This year, children were regaled with the tales of Akku who learns, with a little help from her father, what to do when she feels angry in Angry Akku, written and illustrated by Vinayak Varma. Not to mention the adventures of T. Sundari, the hero of The Girl Who Could Not Stop Laughing written by Meera Ganapathi and illustrated by ROSH. We selected these storybooks to help children navigate what has been an incredibly challenging year for them. One Day, One Story in 2020 went completely online, with storytelling sessions being conducted on Zoom, social media and Whatsapp. Thousands of storytellers all across India did video readalouds of the books, and what made it even more special was that a host of celebrities joined in the movement to spread the joy of reading far and wide! We even had storytelling videos of the storybooks in sign language.

We can all agree that it’s been quite a year – not just for us but for children of all ages, everywhere. As we all continue to adjust and adapt to this new normal brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, we must continue to remember the challenges that children are facing, and continue to work together to do whatever it takes to keep children reading, learning and growing, each and every day.

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