By Chrysta Naron
“At a time when we need to reinvent a world of hope, literacy is more important than ever.”
-Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director General
Literacy offers a beacon of hope. Yet, according to UNESCO, some 773 million children and adults around the world lack basic literacy skills. That’s a huge number. Luckily for all of us, though, there are many incredible people and organizations striving to improve literacy around the world. And the best part is that you can help, too, just by supporting them!
Below, read about seven wonderful literacy initiatives in various parts of the world, which are always looking for donations, volunteers, and books. The nonprofits listed here are close to my bookworm heart. Each one has a specific goal and way to build reading and writing in its target community or area. There are also so many other wonderful projects and nonprofits supporting literacy around the world, so I invite you to find one that calls to you and get involved.
Reading is Fundamental
Reading is Fundamental makes my heart sing. They have truly thought about literacy from the point of view of the child, the caregiver, and the teacher. The organization has multiple programs to help children in a myriad of ways.
They give away new books to kids, offer a supplemental reading program for kindergarten through third-grade students, operate an interactive digital library, and host an online portal with customizable assistance and resources for parents and teachers.
Their online center, Literacy Central, is pitched for adults helping little ones read. It offers a full spectrum of lesson plans, games, and related reading ideas. Within their online programs and ebooks, the organization uses technology to enhance the reading experience for kids. For example, they use Beeline software to put digital text in different colors, so as to help children read line breaks. They also use technology that allows users to change the fonts of digital text to Dyslexie font for people with dyslexia. And parents or teachers can scan a physical book’s ISBN in the Literacy Central app to get to a page with ideas dedicated to that specific book.
In 2019, the group partnered with Mr. Reading Rainbow himself, LeVar Burton, to acquire Skybrary. Developed by Burton as a new evolution of Reading Rainbow, Skybrary is a digital library with floating islands of content that has everything you loved about this classic TV show—books, real-world videos, and lessons. Burton works as advisor for Skybrary and continues to create content for it, so today’s kids can grow up listening to stories and going on adventures with the same teacher many of their parents did. It’s truly magical. But you don’t have to take my word for it, you can try it yourself!
Get involved: Make a financial donation, volunteer, or partner with Reading is Fundamental.
Room to Read
This incredible nonprofit supports educating girls around the world, something that’s also close to my heart: The group’s main purpose is to advocate for gender equality in education and improved literacy for girls. They create libraries, donate books, and train teachers, among their multiple programs.
Another unique and important feature of Room to Read is that 87 percent of the leadership and board members are from the countries being served. So they create programs that they understand will best aid those communities, rather than outsiders imposing what they think is best. They work with local governments, communities, and schools to create excellent educational programs and opportunities for girls. They strive for systemic change, not just quick fixes, again making them stand out in the field.
Get involved: You can donate financially, host or join a book-a-thon, get your local school involved in a fundraiser, join their book club, share their newsletter, and spread the word on social media.
I’m from Austin, Texas, and if there’s one thing we take as seriously as reading, it’s music. So of course, I wanted to focus on the wonderful nonprofit work from one of the best musicians in the world, Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton began her Imagination Library because her own father never learned to read. She didn’t want any other children to feel embarrassed or held back by their lack of access to books.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library sends every registered child one free, new, age-appropriate book every month. Children can receive books from birth until they turn five years old. The initiative has donated over 150 million books (including audio and Braille books) since 1995. It began serving one small part of Tennessee and now operates in the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.
Intrigued? Try watching Dolly read bedtime stories from the Imagination Library’s YouTube channel or watching a documentary about the project, called The Library That Dolly Built (available on multiple streaming services).
Get involved: Become a community champion and bring the program to your city. If your city already has a program, you can donate financially or volunteer with your local program.
Indigenous Literacy Foundation
Around the globe, indigenous populations have been denied access to adequate education. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation in Australia aims to repair that damage. They supply books to indigenous children and support literacy efforts like daily story times, especially in remote areas of Australia. The foundation also strives to publish children’s books by indigenous authors that are intended for indigenous populations.
To date, they’ve reached speakers of up to 26 different languages in 400 remote communities! They have donated over half a million books and published 103 books by indigenous authors. This level of dedication and support in a chronically underserved population is why I love to support this valuable group.
Get involved: If you happen to be in Australia, you can become a volunteer or host one of the group’s Great Book Swaps. If not, you can donate money, buy merchandise, or, if you own a business, donate a portion of your proceeds. They also greatly encourage people to follow and share on social media.
El Buen Samaritano
You might be familiar with this nonprofit from our previous post on Austin Literacy Nonprofits. Based in my hometown of Austin, Texas, El Buen Samaritano offers many services, including educational support. It has five levels of ESL classes for children and adults, after-school and summer programs for kids, and school readiness programs. The organization offers its classes in both English and Spanish.
El Buen Samaritano really sparkles because of its commitment to strengthening families by creating opportunities for families to learn and play together.
Get involved: Volunteer at El Buen Samaritano or at one of their many events. They also accept monetary donations.
As an educator for more than 14 years, I have seen the ways children learn broaden to include more technology at younger ages. Some of this change is unwelcome, but it’s undeniable that digital learning can be a helpful supplement to a broader literacy strategy that also includes face-to-face, person-to-person conversation, book sharing, and reading instruction. Unfortunately, children in low-income areas often lack access to tablets, smart phones, and laptops, as well as curriculum and learning materials. Worldreader tackles this problem head on.
Worldreader works in countries around the world to get digital books, as well as the technology required to access them, into the hands of children. They also train parents, teachers, and librarians on how to use the tools and platforms.
Get involved: Donate, sponsor a school, or subscribe to their newsletter and spread the word.
Behind the Book
This organization does truly well-designed and inspirational work. Based in New York City, Behind the Book aims to tackle low literacy rates in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. This directly benefits children of color and children who are English language learners, which I am incredibly passionate about. Behind the Book has a team that comes from the communities it supports, and their well-thought-out methods are backed by great intentions and actions.
The group has donated more than 17,500 books since 2003. They help teachers create strong curriculum that goes along with the Common Core State Standards and is culturally relevant. Behind the Book also gets authors into classrooms to talk to students about reading, writing, and exploring their creative process. They also create reading and writing workshops for students, encouraging children to get hands-on in growing their reading abilities.
Get involved: Volunteer, donate funds, or attend one of their fundraising events.
Literacy is the key that opens the door to almost every other avenue in life. By supporting organizations like these that are working to help end illiteracy around the world, you can be a part of handing millions of people that key.
But volunteering with or donating to one of these nonprofits is just one way to get involved. You can also start your own book drive for a local library or children’s shelter, or create a Little Free Library in your neighborhood. You can even simply take time and use your voice to teach others you know about the issue—and all the ways to help.
How else can we all support universal literacy, in our communities and around the world? Let us know your favorite organizations and projects, or your own ideas, in the comments or on social media!
Chrysta Naron (she/her) is an early childhood educator and curriculum specialist in Austin, Texas (originally Comanche land), who believes everything is better with glitter! Read more from her at playfulprek.com.