Illustration by Wiehan de Jager from the story by ‘I Like to Read,’ by Letta Machoga, originally from the African Storybook project. This story is now available on Storybooks Canada in 28 languages. (African Storybook), CC BY

Global Storybooks: From Arabic to Zulu, freely available digital tales in 50+ languages

Globally, 750 million youth and adults do not know how to read and write and 250 million children are failing to acquire basic literacy skills. Literacy is central to education and plays an important role in development and peace.

In response to this global educational challenge, our team based at the University of British Columbia developed the open multilingual literacy portal Global Storybooks.

This portal hosts custom sites with multilingual open-licensed books for over 40 countries and regions on five continents. Our vision is to help democratize global flows of information and resources, to facilitate language learning — including Indigenous languages — and to promote literacy.

One of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is to achieve quality education globally by the year 2030. High illiteracy rates among children are partly due to a lack of appropriate reading materials in languages familiar to children. Research has shown that children learn to read best in their family’s home language, which also establishes a strong foundation for learning any additional languages.

We believe the Global Storybooks project has the potential to promote quality education, literacy and multilingualism worldwide. Open educational resources (OER) have much potential to address the lack of reading materials in poorly resourced communities, facilitate language learning and reduce inequities between communities and nations.

From 150+ African languages

In the story ‘Simbegwire,’ a girl climbs a tree and sings, and one of the women listens very carefully. Illustration by Benjamin Mitchley from the story ‘Simbegwire,’ by Rukia Nantale from the African Storybook, also on Storybooks Canada. (African Storybook), CC BY

The origins of this Global Storybooks digital project are found in the African Storybook initiative, which digitizes and makes freely available under an open license over 1,000 original stories in over 150 African languages, as well as English, French and Portuguese.

The South African organization Saide began developing this site in 2013, with funding from the UK charity Comic Relief and research support from UBC scholars.

Grounded in a shared vision of global literacy and open technology, our UBC team collaborated on the development of Storybooks Canada, with seed funding from UBC Language Sciences. Launched in 2018, Storybooks Canada was the first of our Global Storybooks sites. It has a growing team, with a range of funders, including Education without Borders, the Peter Wall Institute and Mitacs. It is built on a curated selection of 40 openly licensed stories from the African Storybook that have been repurposed for a Canadian and global audience.

The stories have been translated into 19 of the most widely spoken languages in Canada, with studio-quality audio versions. An additional 10 languages are still in the process of being translated or recorded. Many of the translations and recordings, which are ongoing, are done by international graduate student volunteers with an interest in literacy and language learning.

Indigenous languages and stories

In the story ‘The Seasons,’ a young cat gets dressed for tobogganing. Story available in Swampy Cree, Plains Cree, Haida (Old Masset) and Haida (Skidegate), as well as in English, French and Spanish. (Little Cree Books), CC BY

Through the Global Storybooks portal, users can also access Indigenous Storybooks, developed in collaboration with Haida scholar Sara Davidson of the University of the Fraser Valley. This collection is based on the open licensed stories created by the Little Cree Books project at the University of Alberta.

The Indigenous Storybooks site now offers translations of these stories in Swampy Cree, Plains Cree, Haida (Old Masset) and Haida (Skidegate), as well as in English, French and Spanish. Recently, volunteers have also translated these stories into Huichol and Huastec, Indigenous languages of Mexico.

As news of Storybooks Canada has spread internationally, many scholars, educators and community agencies have invited us to collaborate on the development of localized sites for their communities, based on the Global Storybooks platform.

Features and benefits

This platform has been specifically designed to support the development of mother tongue literacy, bilingualism, and multilingualism with the following features:

  1. Single-click access: The stories can be reached in a single click.

  2. User-friendly layout: Easy to navigate and can support self-directed learning.

  3. Audio and print: Promotes reading by linking sounds and symbols.

  4. Mobile-first design: Websites can be easily viewed on any device, including cell phones, tablets and desktop computers.

  5. Parallel texts: Users can toggle between different translations of the same story. The more familiar language helps to scaffold understanding of the less-familiar language.

  6. Downloading: Stories can be downloaded in different PDF layouts, including monolingual or bilingual and regular or wordless/imageless versions. Users can also download in a landscape format (for reading on screens) or a booklet format (for printing).

Interview with Bonny Norton at Cambridge University.

New sites can draw on the existing database of stories and multimedia in multiple languages, and new translations are developed as needed. At present, translations have been made in more than 50 new languages. For example, the Storybooks Jamaica site features translations of the 40 stories into Jamaican Creole, and the stories on Storybooks Haiti are available in Haitian Creole.

Ongoing research

The Global Storybooks project generates many questions for educational research: How well do stories travel from one region of the world to another? To what extent can sites like Storybooks Canada promote home and school connections for immigrant and refugee students? Does the use of dual language storybooks promote language awareness in linguistically diverse classrooms?

Team member and UBC PhD candidate Michelle Gilman is investigating connections between Storybooks Canada and the B.C. curriculum. PhD student Asma Afreen is addressing cultural identity in the translation of English language stories from the African Storybook into Bengali for Storybooks Canada and Storybooks Bangladesh. Her knowledge of Bangladeshi cultural practices and social relationships helps inform the translation process.

Asma Afreen discusses translation issues.

As we celebrate the International Day of Education on Jan. 24, 2020, we believe that the global community needs to heed the advice of the UN Secretary General to do far more to promote equitable education internationally. The ongoing development of Global Storybooks is one response to this urgent call.

This story was co-authored by Liam Doherty, a PhD candidate at UBC in language and literacy education.

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