Global Reading App Ends US ‘Book Deserts’

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Worldreader uses its BookSmart app to tackle reading inequalities in communities.

While book deserts in underserved communities requiring reading support have always been a problem in the United States, the pandemic has exacerbated this problem with the closure of schools and libraries. The Worldreader nonprofit saw an opportunity.

Although its BookSmart app was developed to provide free e-books to young people in developing countries, in 2020 the association decided to launch its programming in the United States.

Kristen Walter, Worldreader’s Director of US Programs, said: “With COVID, we realized that a lot of the inequalities that we see in other countries we are seeing here as well – in terms of book deserts and lack of access to literacy resources. “

According to Walter, a book desert is defined as an area where families face barriers to accessing books. Even where there are public libraries, families may have difficulty getting there – or may be hesitant to register their identity when signing up for a library card. And when libraries closed due to COVID, it became much more difficult for families to get books.

Currently, Worldreader is in partnership with Worldvision and Reading Partners to bring the BookSmart app to families in the Bronx. Since Worldreader’s partners distribute physical books to families, they can also set up families with access to the BookSmart app and show them how to use it. They go where their reading partners have already established relationships with families and schools.

Kristen Anderson, Senior Director of Program and Affiliate Stewardship for Raising a Reader (one of those partner organizations) said the partnership with Worldreader has helped them support families with reading goals during the pandemic. Raising a Reader normally provides families with bags full of physical books – which children pick up at school – and that model was turned upside down during the pandemic.

This model of schoolbag had to adapt to the pandemic. Instead of providing spinning book bags, Raising a Reader allowed sites to purchase kits that would go home and stay home with families. Although families could normally access 100 titles through programming in Raising a Reader, they now only had one bag. That’s where the BookSmart app comes in: Raising a Reader added registration instructions for BookSmart to the kits they sent home with families. This allowed access to more titles.

Anderson says, “For our model, which is for the kids to be in a school setting where they drop a bag or pick up a new bag, [the pandemic] had an impact on families’ access to libraries or other access. Some of these practices have ceased. Having access to digital books, especially during the pandemic, has been crucial. ”

While public libraries also offer free digital book collections, families do not have to register to use the BookSmart app. Families can access the BookSmart app through a link without having to provide credentials and don’t have to go to a library to sign up for a card. BookSmart is not intended to replace the library, says Walter. Instead, it works as an additional resource to break down the barriers families sometimes have in accessing books. The app always has at least 150 titles available for readers and according to their annual report, they plan to reach 50,000 vulnerable children with their launch in the United States.

Worldreader partners with publishers like Highlights in the US, but they also partner with international publishers like Kwani Trust and Primento and are able to offer titles through BookSmart that users wouldn’t normally find in public libraries in the United States. Walter said, “It’s a world library – we have books that you wouldn’t normally find in the United States. We complement a library collection very well. Popular titles on BookSmart include Un Camino a la Vida by Ying-Xuan Lai, The Girl With Magic Hands (in Spanish and English by Nnedi Okorafor, and Love Like That by Richa Jha.

The BookSmart app also offers “activities” associated with many of the books in the collection, many of which are offered as bilingual titles. For example, the book Feeling happy is associated with a socio-emotional learning activity (an activity designed to help children develop social and emotional skills) that focuses on what makes the child happy. Walter said: “We suggest to parents and teachers that after [reading the book}, you talk to your child about what makes you happy: what makes you laugh, what makes you proud. Then asking them about what makes them happy and taking it one step forward and draw a picture of what makes you happy.”

“We’re having children use their own voice,” said Walter, “not just consuming the information but use their voice to do activities to actually create content to go with the book and really facilitate a conversation with their caregiver.”

Because the book is bilingual, it also offers linguistic choice to the caregiver: they can elect to read the book in Spanish and do the activity in English or vice versa. Although the app does not collect user data, Worldreader does track overall how many people read the books as well as which books have been read, and Walter has been really pleased with the engagement by Spanish-speaking readers. The app currently has 13,086 readers in the United States and 2,510 of those readers have continued to exhibit reading behaviors over time.

“In the top 20 books, around 60 percent of these books are Spanish titles,” Walter said. “We’ve taken the time to be really thoughtful about a Spanish connection and bringing that equity piece for Spanish-speaking families. [I really love] that these titles are being read.


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