Learning to read is a basic human right, keeps kids in school longer and is a huge global economic opportunity. It has been estimated that each additional year of schooling raises average annual GDP growth by 0.37 percent.

Global literacy

The great news is that the world long ago solved how to teach children to read and write. Fifty countries have reduced illiteracy to 1 percent or less, in part because quality teacher support and student content are readily available in the world’s most widely spoken languages.

Yet, in 50 other countries, the have-nots of world literacy, 25 percent or more of people cannot read, write or fully participate in the economy. I frequently visit classrooms across the Global South, where there are far too few books. It’s common to see a group of 10 students sharing a single, worn reading textbook. My heart aches for the struggling readers in those groups. My head knows there is a better way: digital reading tech.

“Ruggedized and with long battery-life, these devices are more durable and portable than paper books.”

New tools, new literacy

E-readers and tablets allow students to have hundreds, even thousands of books at their fingertips. Ruggedized and with long battery-life, these devices are more durable and portable than paper books. Over time, they cost less. And data analytics allow teachers to see student-specific reading patterns, in turn fostering individualized instruction.

These innovations can drastically reshape traditional approaches to literacy, especially in low-resource classrooms where children in rural poverty hope to learn. Imagine a future where every child — never having had access to a schoolbook of her own — suddenly has that story in her hands as her teacher gives instruction. Better yet, imagine she has access to over a hundred books in the size of one, and takes them home with her to practice reading with her family.

That future is now. In one case of third grade classrooms empowered by access to e-readers, the literacy proficiency among students was 5.3 times greater than peers without such technology. Well-designed tech, paired with quality teaching support, can be the great literacy equalizer. The tools to once and for all democratize learning are here — and improving every day.