The ability to read builds the foundation for education and a better life. Yet according to the United Nations, 617 million children and adolescents worldwide are not acquiring basic literacy skills. This number includes children like 9-year-old Alifya from Wazirpur, Delhi. Her parents, Shabana and Ramirrudin, understand the importance of an education and send her to school, but simply cannot afford to buy books or teach her themselves. As a result, her parents tell us Alifya is already behind her reading grade level and increasingly finding it hard to stay engaged.
At Google, we believe technology can help kids around the world, like Alifya, learn how to read and can move us closer to the goal of basic universal literacy. Over the years, we’ve invested in this goal through our products, partnerships and funding. Google.org granted $50M and technical expertise to nonprofit innovators using technology to close education gaps. These organizations have reached more than 30 million students and are improving student outcomes and teacher effectiveness. They are ensuring technology improves everyone’s education experience, no matter their location or learning environment. And given the advancements in speech technology and AI, we believe there is room to do more.
Earlier this year, we took one step forward in this direction and released Bolo, an AI-enabled Android app to help kids improve reading skills.
We designed Bolo to act as a personal reading tutor to help any student whenever and wherever they need it. It uses speech-based technology to provide personalized assistance in a student’s reading journey, correcting them when they need help and encouraging them when they get it right. The app even works completely offline on low cost phones, which means children who need it the most also have access to the app.
When we tested Bolo in India, we found that 64 percent of kids who used the app showed an improvement in reading proficiency. In the five months since the launch in India, more than 800,000 children have used the app to read more than three million stories. “Earlier I couldn’t check Alfiya’s reading abilities. However, with Bolo, I can see her progress at home when she is using the app,” Shabana, Alfiya’s mother, tells us. “Her reading skills have improved and I believe this has increased her confidence.” These results have inspired us to expand our efforts to even more children in more places.
Later this month, Bolo will also support Spanish and Portuguese, in addition to Hindi and English. This expansion will help children learn how to read in four of the most spoken languages in the world.
As we hear more from students like Alfiya, who was able to significantly improve her reading skills after just three months, we are optimistic that technology can play a role in improving literacy. After all, every child who learns how to read is another student empowered to become a future author, doctor, artist, computer scientist or, in Alfiya’s case, a teacher.