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Can technology help education overcome illiteracy?

Recently, the International Literacy Association held its inaugural Leaders for Literacy Day.  The event was held at the United Nations Plaza in New York, and involved panelists ranging from corporate partners to academics working to advance literacy rates worldwide.

One of the panelists, Steven Duggan, is director of worldwide education strategy for Microsoft Corporation.  Duggan commented that Microsoft has "recently turned its attention to the importance of literacy and creating tools for the most basic of needs."

"We’re only focused on literacy because we started to listen.”  Microsoft questioned teachers about the challenges the face in the classroom. The response was literacy, and when Microsoft researched the issue, they realized why it is such a consuming issue for educators.  

They found few books were printed in minority languages, while other children simply had no books in any language. Microsoft acted by launching Lit4Life and the Chekhov Story Author App. Teachers can use these tools to write, and publish their books to a cloud-based network. A book recording option was added once Microsoft learned that 31% of illiterate children come from an illiterate home.

These resources are a benefit to all learners, both with and without disabilities, by relying on principles of universal design to help make literacy more accessible.


Given Microsoft's commitment to overcoming illiteracy, what other accessibility issues do you see with students whose illiteracy is impacted by a disability?  What challenges can technology apply the principles of universal design to, in order to reduce barriers for learners with disabilities?




David J. Rosen's picture

Hi Mike,

Thanks for sharing this information about Microsoft's new commitment to addressing world literacy for adults and children. 

I am reminded of another initiative, Worldreader, now about five years old, that provides a library of 15,000 books and other texts in English and in other languages in many countries in Africa, India, and elsewhere. The Worldreader library is available on e-readers and tablets to children in schools where there is Internet access (a relatively small number of schools in many African countries) but also for free on cell phones, including plain feature phones (like a flip phone) that have SMS text messaging. Even in very poor countries these feature phones are widespread, for example, in Liberia, a country I am familiar with, there are feature phones in an estimated 65-70% of households. At least one cell phone provider in Liberia has announced that for its customers the text messaging -- to get these texts -- is free. Worldreader is also encouraging Liberian authors to digitize their writings and make them available in the library for free.

A smartphone version of the Worldreader app is available free, and doesn't have to be downloaded. It runs on a smartphone or tablet, but not a computer.  The library includes writings for children, young adults and adults. There are categories for: learning, health, sports, worship, career, etc. It includes poetry as well as prose. You'll find thrillers, fantasy, and romances. The Learn category has biographies, cooking, personal finance, language learning, IT, geography, history, How to, Math, Science and more. Most of the texts in the Worldreader library are in English, but some are in other languages. 

For adult learners in the U.S.who have smartphones (or tablets and probably e-readers -- anyone know?), Worldreader is a free library, designed to be with you wherever you are. Teachers who are interested in developing or expanding a blended or hybrid learning model could assign readings that busy students with smartphones could read in chunks or at a stretch, whenever they had "down time" at work, while wait -- anyone knowing in lines, or riding public transportation. Think of this as a large, free, easy-to-use library that adult learners carry in their pocket and use when they have time. This is a new way of thinking about literacy, a new culture of reading availability -- at least for anyone in the U.S. who has a smart phone or tablet. I am not sure, but Worldreader may also be available on feature phones in the U.S. as it is in many poor and developing countries. Anyone know?  

Of course, many public libraries in the U.S. now have free apps for phones, e-readers and tablets that allow free streaming or downloading of digital library books, usually for a limited time period. This is like borrowing a book, but it is delivered to one's n e-reader, tablet or smartphone. I wonder if anyone is teaching their students how to use this feature -- or if students already know how to use this and are teaching each other. Anyone know?

Back to Lit for Life:

Mike, or anyone: do you know if the Checkov Story Author app enables someone to produce writings for a Lit for Life library? I didn't see mention of a library on their website but I may have missed that. Anyone know? Anyone using this App?

Teachers: I wonder how you might use Worldreader, Lit for Life, Checkhov, or public library apps with your students. It would be great to hear your ideas -- or about your actual experiences -- in using any of these.

David J. Rosen

Technology and Learning Cop Moderator





Michael Cruse's picture

Hi, David -

Thanks for your comments and questions.  I also wondered whether there is a way for students to post and share their e-books though Chekhov.  It isn't clear from the website, but I've followed up with the question in the comments section.  Hopefully we'll hear something back.



Ted Oparnico's picture

Good morning David-

Any idea if this is available in an off-line version?  I work in a Correctional setting where inmates are not allowed access to the internet.  This would be a great resource for the lower level learners and students with previously diagnosed and current Learning Disabilities.  Thank you.

Ted Oparnico

Special Education Program Manager

Idaho Department of Correction

David J. Rosen's picture

Hi Ted,

Good question. I assume you mean mean the Checkhov Story Authoring Tool. Correct? I wonder if anyone here has used Checkhov and may know the answer to your question, i.e. if once downloaded if it can operate offline. I don't. Do you, Mike? If someone is interested in checking it out, please tell us what you learn about it.

David J. Rosen

Technology and Learning CoP Moderator


Michael Cruse's picture

Hi, Ted -

Thanks for your question.  I assume that you could download the Chekhov App and have your learners use it on a device with no internet access.  However, it might be worth contacting Lit4Life through their website: - to find out more.   If you look at the menu bar at the top of the screen, Contact is on the right side of the Lit4Life homepage.

I hope this is a good resource for you to use with your learners.  What are your other resources for working with learners with disabilities in correctional settings?



AngyFolkes's picture

I teach Beginning ESL to adults. I recently got a grant for about a dozen tablets. It seems it would be great in the classroom and many of my students already use smart phones. I could maybe develop materials that I already have into a book format. and also use resources that are already available. Something I would love to check out.

Michael Cruse's picture

Hi, Angy -

Your new tablet would be a great tool for exploring Lit4Life and Chekhov Story Author.  You can access Skype Lesson: The Chekhov Story Author from the Lit4Life website.  Here is what Skype says about using this resource to learn more about Chekhov.

The Chekhov story author tool for creating dynamic e-books is being made available through Skype in the classroom, reaching classrooms around the globe to help students write their own stories, share it with friends and family around the world and most importantly allow others the opportunity to learn how to read.

Chekhov team members will teach a Skype class through the process of creating a book – from inputting text and images, to voice recording, as well as what to do once the book is finished.

Find out more and sign-up at:

@SkypeClassroom #ChekhoveBook

Please keep us posted if you use this resource to get you and your students started on Chekhov.   

Good Luck!



Jakki's picture

What a great opportunity.

Adobe Voice is a great app for students to create their own stories, and really easy to use.Yu can also use it as a story board by taking/using pics of your own stories and adding your voice and the words.

There are loads of other easy to use story creators as well. 

My favourite app is bitsboard for vocabulary and short sentences. 

It all depends on how beginner and how low literate you are talking about. There are some really good letter (a b c) learn to write/ trace appstoo.

Have fun! Wish it were me. I get by with one tablet. 



AngyFolkes's picture

Thanks for sharing. I am an adult esol teacher. I teach beginning level English and some basic computer classes. I recently won a project grant (14 tablets) I will love to try worldreader etc. I am concerned that more could be done for low level adult  language learners. Wile the number of my students with tablets and smart phones is growing, it is a challenge when the whole class does not have them. I long for the day when they do. 

David J. Rosen's picture

Hello Angy, and others,

Some adult ESOL/ESL teachers encourage students to bring their own smartphones (or if they have them, tablets) to class -- a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model. Some also pair students (or create small groups of three or at most four) with each tablet or smartphone. The teacher gives group in-class assignments that require using the portable digital device. 

The Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL) has a free online library of readings for adult learners, organized by three reading levels.

There are some useful ESOL/ESL resources on the Literacy List at

David J. Rosen

Technology and Learning CoP Moderator


Edward Latham's picture

I did not notice if this resource was already shared yet. Newsela is a site that lists very popular news articles for readers. The power of the site is that you get to choose the reading levels of the recent news. A beginning reader can start at very low levels and as you click to increase each level you can see the depth, complexity, vocabulary and sentence structure change with each setting. It might be nice to have readers of all levels read the same article and then have them discuss what they understood from the article. Another usage might be for someone to read at their comfort level then try the next level up so they can start to experience some of the differences. As they get more comfortable with what that "next level" looks like, the student can then start a new article at that next level and revert back to the old level to verify understanding. Seems like this free service would have many applications, but I am a math guy so no so sure smiley

David J. Rosen's picture

Hello Ed and others,

Newsela is a great website and is listed with other sites on the Easy Reading for Adult Learners page  which is part of the Literacy List, which I developed and maintain free for the field as a volunteer. I like your description of Newsela and have added it and cited you. If you, and others, have other easy reading resource collections that are not currently listed on the Easy Reading for Adult Learners web page please e-mail me your suggestions.

David J. Rosen

AngyFolkes's picture

Is it easy to create a book using Lit 4 Life?  I would like to convert some PowerPoints for this purpose.