20 October 2021

In the East African country of Tanzania, 7-year-old student Maria was forced to abruptly pause her education last year when the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools in her local Handeni District to close. Maria is one of more than 1.6 billion children whose education has been disrupted during the pandemic.

The combination of months away from the classroom and a loss of household income could result in a generation of students from low-income communities dropping out of school, especially in areas where local infrastructure doesn’t easily allow for remote learning opportunities. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that two thirds of the world’s school-age children did not have Internet access at home during the pandemic, and nearly 77 million children have not set foot in a classroom in the past 18 months.

As a global nonprofit organization focused on increasing literacy and gender equality through education, Room to Read has witnessed the power that literacy can bring to global COVID-19 recovery processes. By prioritizing education for young learners in families and communities, and within government systems, countries can boost recovery from this crisis, and facilitate resilience and generational progress.

Young Learners

With foundational literacy skills, children in underserved communities can gain knowledge and better understand the world around them, including the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reading serves as an activity through which children can recognize difficult emotions and develop coping strategies. Room to Read’s COVID-19 Book Collection, for example, provides young readers with local-language children’s book titles from 10 countries, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam. The collection features characters dealing with anxiety arising from the uncertainty of the past 18 months, in stories that can inspire children to understand and better express their emotions with loved ones.

While the pandemic has shown that we cannot always rely on the continuity of face-to-face learning in school, it has also demonstrated the invaluable role that reading plays in fostering self-worth within young learners. Through reading, children can develop a sense of belonging.

When young students are treated as the diverse thinkers they are and provided with access to locally relevant and high-quality learning materials,  encouragement from mentors, and social-emotional learning components that are integrated into literacy instruction, they experience dignified learning, which places them on track for improved educational and life outcomes.

Families and Communities

As the pandemic increases the strain of economic struggles on families and communities, children, especially adolescent girls, often suffer negative consequences as they’re tasked with caring for sick relatives, supporting the household and becoming a default resource for relatives and the broader community. UNICEF estimates that because of the pandemic, 10 million additional girls are at risk of child marriage and 24 million children are in danger of dropping out of school permanently.

As parents face feelings of helplessness and uncertainty, they can find hope and resilience through witnessing and sharing in the emerging literacy skills of their children. In Tanzania, Maria entered the pandemic lockdown with three books she had checked out from her school library the day before the school was closed. Maria’s mother, a non-fluent Kiswahili reader with only a grade 7 education, used those books to make sure her daughter had a set time each day to read and learn new words. She found security in a fixed routine and in seeing Maria’s continuous reading improvement.

Students in Zambia raise their hands to answer questions posed by their teacher.

Children equipped with literacy skills are able to help their families and communities rise above the challenges of the pandemic and find access to support and resources. Literate youth are more likely to hold jobs and earn higher incomes, which they can use to help educate other family members and uplift their communities.

Government Education Systems

How can a society ever hope to progress to its full potential without a literate population? Education sows the seeds of economic and social prosperity. It has the power to serve as the single most effective tool in combating the world’s biggest challenges as it unlocks the imagination and abilities of millions of changemakers. The UNESCO Global Monitoring Report found that increased levels of education result in higher income and per capita earnings as well as heightened concern for the environment, while also decreasing the risk of conflict and child deaths. Aside from the positive results seen across domains, education is a fundamental human right for every individual.

As governments look to implement solutions that accelerate COVID-19 recovery, they need to establish flexible and scalable ways of learning, so that children can catch-up on missed learning opportunities—even in these unique circumstances and with the possibility of further disruptions. By prioritizing foundational learning, including literacy and life skills, governments can provide stability that children can rely on to remain solution-oriented and hopeful about the future.

In Bangladesh, government officials have created a digital learning platform called “Ghore Boshei Shikha” or Learning at Home, which provides storytelling videos and tips for parents to support their children’s reading habits. Bangladesh has also turned to social media to support resource delivery, reading instruction and training for children and teachers alike.

Success is possible. With help from her mother and stepsister, and with reading materials available at home, Maria was able to continue learning during the pandemic. Despite scoring zero on reading tests before the lockdowns, Maria returned to her school when it reopened and achieved top scores, including 98 per cent in reading and 100 per cent in writing, surprising her teacher with both her academic performance and newfound confidence and participation. Maria hopes to complete school and one day become a medical doctor.  

As we find ourselves in the greatest education crisis of our generation, literacy interventions can act as an antidote to the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping prevent a regression of all global indicators and accelerating advancement towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

At Room to Read, we believe that “World Change Starts with Educated Children”®. In a world so desperately in need of recovery and healing, the rising generation and its literacy skills carry hope for the future.  


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