January 25, 2017 | A UBC Innovation Snapshot: Be inspired by and connect with innovators at UBC
Who are you?
Professor Bonny Norton is an Education Professor researching literacy and identity and elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Language and Literacy Education Professor Bonny Norton effects societal change by helping children learn to read with a digital innovation, the African Storybook. This open access platform enables users to read, download, and share over 3,400 illustrated children’s stories in nearly 100 African languages, as well as English, French, and Portuguese. The easy to-use, accessible resource helps children learn to read in their mother tongue. Research indicates that learning to read in one’s native language at an early age consistently promotes greater literacy and educational success.
What problem are you solving?
“Sub-Saharan Africa has approximately 1 billion people and approximately 2,000 languages, but there aren’t enough resources for children to learn to read in their mother tongue, which is the best way for children to become literate,” says Norton on the occasion of her induction to the Royal Society of Canada, in November 2016. “In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than one-third of children are out of school by Grade 4, and only 40 per cent of these children meet minimum reading standards, compared to 96 per cent in North America.”
Norton, along with her team of former and current graduate students, including Juliet Tembe, Sam Andema, and Espen Stranger-Johannessen, began work on the project in 2013. The South African organization, Saide, launched the project, and Norton was appointed Research Advisor. Apart from serving on two key committees, and organizing international symposia and workshops, Norton and her students have helped field-test stories in African schools and libraries.
How does your idea contribute to society?
“These tend to be more traditional African stories, so we are preserving oral storytelling for the future … they are available bilingually with beautiful illustrations, encouraging children to engage actively with text,” says Norton.
In recent months, the African Storybook project (which is also available for Android and iOS devices) reached 4,800 visitors per month with over 35,000 monthly downloads of the materials published, exciting students and intriguing teachers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Users can also create and upload their own stories and content is available in print format, where access to the Internet is limited.
The online storybook platform also holds potential for many Aboriginal language initiatives associated with revitalization and translation.
“The online tool is sufficiently organic for scaling up efficiently,” says Norton. “The system allows for sustainability — open access is free, so anybody can use and share.”
What do you need now?
Norton’s goal for the African Storybook project is to publicize it, get people to use it, and seek partners in its delivery.
“There are huge social problems in the world, and many of them stem from illiteracy,” says Norton. “This is a phenomenal tool, and we want educators to know there’s a resource available to help teachers promote reading.”
Norton also seeks partners that can provide hardware such as iPads and smartphones, solar power and other resources to print stories.