Challenges in Global Literacy

Grandma Dot reads to Theo

For minority language communities of the world, the formidable hurdles one has to jump over to produce and publish books have meant very few communities have achieved successful, thriving, and sustainable literacy programs. Books are expensive to produce and publish, and desktop-publishing software is cost-prohibitive for the world’s majority, and very complex to learn.

These are just a few of the reasons why our grandson has probably even now been exposed to more books in his brief sojourn on this beautiful planet than many speakers of minority languages will ever get to enjoy in their entire lifetime.

And let’s be clear: being exposed to interesting, colourful, age-appropriate, decodable and leveled books is a crucial element to helping children become truly literate. But that’s not all: one or two or even twenty books will not be sufficient to do the trick. A child needs an abundance of books, from a wide variety of genres, to make reading stick.

With these significant obstacles, is there cause for us to hope to see a thriving global literacy movement in our lifetime?

 Well, the first sign of hope began back in the 90s when SIL* developed the concept of “shell books” to help kick-start book production in language communities in Papua New Guinea. The idea was to develop a library of book “templates” which could easily be translated into other PNG languages. The templates had a script in a majority language and royalty-free illustrations. This concept took off to other places in the world, including Africa, and we ourselves later benefited from shell books created by SIL Cameroon. We produced eight such books in Turka, on various themes ranging from personal healthcare to development. But the concept was limited to using black-and-white illustrations, and it still required someone’s mastery of a desktop-publishing program to produce it, as well as a nearby print shop. These factors precluded most minority-language communities from really owning the process from start to finish.

Enter Bloom…

Bloom is a software product designed to remove those obstacles: it is free, easy to use, and yet, remarkably powerful. This software, along with its growing online library of globally-authored shell books is empowering speakers of minority languages to produce books (both print and electronic) in their own heart languages. Case in point: in a recent report by USAID of four “Enabling Writers Workshops” held in Indonesia and the Philippines in 2018, participants produced “3,000 open-source, decodable and leveled digital books in 15 different languages” using Bloom software. Online users of Bloom alone number over 36,000 and it’s anyone’s guess how many offline users there are. This thing is really taking off.

 And since end-user feedback guides the ongoing development of Bloom, there promises to be increasing buy-in for this software in the years to come.

Indeed, since its inception in 2011, the product has matured greatly and now boasts an ability to create talking electronic books to help young readers and the visually-impaired, as well as diglot and triglot books to reflect the prevalence of multilingualism. And an exciting upcoming feature will enable users to embed sign-language videos into their electronic books for the hearing-impaired. 

Can you see why I’m excited about this?

My Involvement

As you can probably guess, my old computer programming skills are long obsolete, and I don’t plan on reviving that part of my past anytime soon. Instead, the skill set I’m being asked to bring to the Bloom team is as an end-user with field experience who can methodically test the software on various platforms (Windows & Unix), find bugs, and write up bug reports with sufficient detail so as to actually help the developers pin-point any problems. Since I already found a bug when I wasn’t even looking for one, I trust that I’ll not become like the proverbial Maytag repair man in this job. 🙂 I’ll also be testing the Bloom Reader app on various Android devices, including old devices likely to be used in developing nations.

Even though I won’t be programming, there’s a great deal for me to learn before becoming a fully productive member of the Bloom team, and so I covet your prayers and support during the upcoming months as I transition into this new role!


Dot unpacks Turka “shell books” at a Turka church, circa 2006.


“Enabling Writers” authors in the Philippines Photo:

* SIL is Wycliffe’s main partner organization in field work and language technology worldwide.