Books are essential to solving the global learning crisis

By Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, Head of Education Policy and Advocacy, Save the Children and Chair of the Global Book Alliance

The Global Book Alliance is committed to supporting the creation of at least 50 culturally and linguistically appropriate children’s book titles for each year of literacy development in 500 languages.

A new coalition of governments, international agencies, NGOs and the private sector has launched this week with the aim of closing the children’s book gap.

In school but not learning

Last year, the UNESCO Institute for Statistic published alarming new estimates of the number of children that aren’t achieving the basics in reading and maths.

It showed that 387 million children of primary school age do not achieve minimum proficiency levels in reading. Disturbingly two-thirds of these children, some 262 million, are in school. There is now a broad consensus that this is a tragic waste of both human potential and financial resources.

Having identified the problem, we need to act and implement evidence-based measures that we know will improve learning.

Learning to read without books

Not literate classroom environment
Tens of millions of children are expected to learn to read without adequate access to books and print.

There are undoubtedly numerous challenges to reversing the global learning crisis. A critical but neglected one, is the lack quality reading materials in a language that children understand.

For example, in Malawi, there are approximately 2.2 million native speakers of Tumbuka and another 2.2 million speakers of Yao. Yet, there are fewer than 20 reading book titles available in either language, leaving nearly 25 percent of Malawi’s population without the materials necessary to acquire and sustain basic literacy.

The situation is repeated across the world. And the relatively few speakers of minority languages, coupled with the low incomes of the regions where these languages are spoken, means that the market for books in these languages simply will not develop without support.

It is hard to imagine learning to read without access to books but that is in fact what we expect of millions of children around the world. This is despite a robust body of research, which has established that books in languages children use and understand are essential to literacy acquisition.

A new alliance dedicated to support the entire book chain from development to use

Thankfully, recognition of the challenge posed by a lack of books to early literacy is growing. UNESCO, the World Bank, and the International Commission for Financing Global Educational Opportunity have all recently called for the increased provision of books to improve learning.

And building on research and design work begun in 2015 a coalition of donors, multilateral agencies and non-government organisations have established the Global Book Alliance. Inspired by the work of organisations like GAVI, which has improved access to immunisation by transforming the vaccines supply chain, the Global Book Alliance will take a similar approach.


An effective supply of books requires high-quality title development, access to those titles by publishers and a functioning supply chain to deliver books to their potential readers. These books must be appealing, relevant, in the right language and at the right reading level. And teachers and parents must be able to use books effectively to support learning.

Sustaining a sufficient supply of books will also require spurring a healthy demand for books, including through public purchasing. Rigorous procurement practices and interventions to support effective book use can support the market for books across countries and regions and in turn sustain emerging publishing markets.

The Alliance, unlike previous book projects, will support work across the entire book chain, building supply and demand for books simultaneously and reinforcing each link in the chain until it is strong enough to support itself.

This is an ambitious mission, but experience tells us that the challenge demands nothing less. The research, which informed the design of the Alliance, pointed to the potential of focused action on books to supercharge existing efforts and investments in education in general and reading in particular.

Closing the Children’s Book Gap’, the Alliance’s first strategic plan, which we launched at UNESCO headquarters this week, as part of an event to mark International Mother Language Day, sets out three priorities for our first operating period 2018-2020.

A global digital library

Anyone, anywhere, should have access to quality, local language reading materials. A new Global Digital Library, supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, will house at least 50,000 new titles in 100 languages. The books in the library will be aligned with each year of literacy development for children ages 3-11, prioritizing languages where there are few to no reading materials available. These resources will be open source via web, mobile and for print or translation — and at no cost to the user.

Supporting publishing

Books on a digital platform, however good they are, won’t make it in to the hands of children without additional effort. We recognise that the local publishing industry is key to increasing the volume of locally developed, high-quality titles for local distribution.

Our regional and national publishing collaboratives will support the utilisation of material available in the Global Digital Library as well as the training of writers, illustrators and editors and the development of a dynamic book sector, including book promotion and sales.

Supporting comprehensive action at the national level

The Alliance also aspires to implement country level programmes where these and other measures designed to close the children’s book gap are implemented at scale.

Ensuring that all children have access to high-quality, local language books at the right reading level, as well as the teaching and support they need to use them to develop and sustain their literacy skills is critical to reversing the crisis in learning.

The Alliance has an exciting opportunity to forge lasting change that will transform the lives of the world’s children and we are hoping that others will join us. Find out how at

The founding members of the Global Book Alliance are UNESCO, UNICEF, the Global Partnership for Education, the World Bank, USAID, Norad, DfID, Australian Aid, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, World Vision and Save the Children.



  1. The World Bank and GPE have been talking about books at reasonable prices for decades. Somehow the various parts don’t come together. In Africa the textbooks are extremely expensive and beyond the reach of common people. Giving them for free has had problems. The private sector is also very astute and set up to absorb all the money that donors put for books. One way unfortunately has been to buy the complicity of Ministry of Education staff.
    At any rate, not any book will do. Basic textbooks need to meet critical size and spacing parameters and to have lots of text for practice and increasing reading speed. Math textbooks similarly need many exercises and solved examples. Often financial restrictions mean that textbooks are too short.
    The Global Book Alliance has been around in some form since 2012. What has it accomplished thus far? How many books have been delivered in which countries and at which prices? It would be important to write a blog on that.

  2. Investment is needed, but not in foreign textbook producers nor in big commercial publishers. It is essential to develop local publishing capacity, as well as developing local linguistic capacity to use appropriate languages for materials in learners’ mother tongues and/or bilingually. Two-sided bilingual books (where the content is in the dominant language on one side and the local language on the other side) can be cost-effective if produced locally and if local language teams work together; such bilingual materials help teachers to promote biliteracy, and help students and parents to see how both languages can be used to express academic content.

Leave a Reply