Four-year-old Uran lives with her family on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in an underserved ger district, where traditional nomadic gers (yurts) are used as housing. When she first attended a Let’s Read read-aloud session at a nearby community center, Uran had little exposure to books. She was also extremely shy, rarely speaking or displaying emotions.

At the sessions, engaging facilitators brought storybooks to life with interactive readings that sparked Uran’s imagination. While Uran enjoyed all the books, the stories created in Mongolia with characters that looked like her and acted like her were the ones that made the strongest impression on her.

These unique community sessions were also designed to support Uran’s mother. After the group readings, facilitators engaged with parents and families to demonstrate specific read-aloud techniques, show them how to access online storybooks, and provide tips. These activities instilled the skills and extra confidence many families need to continue the readings at home.

After several months of attending the read-aloud sessions and using digital storybooks to create their own reading routines at home, Uran’s mother and the Let’s Read facilitators saw a dramatic change in Uran. Her confidence grew, she started expressing her feelings, and she began interacting with other children at the community center.

Uran and her mother reading together

Today, Uran and her mother continue to enjoy reading together at home and being part of a growing reading community at the Let’s Read sessions. It has been a life-changing experience for both, ensuring Uran will soon be ready to start primary school.

“The reading sessions have been a great resource to me and my daughter,” Uran’s mom said. “Now, my daughter always asks for me to read, and I have gained the confidence to select books that my daughter will love.”

In this day and age, even with increased connectivity, many children and families across Asia and the Pacific lack the access and knowledge to establish the reading routines at home that are critical to building early reading skills and creating strong foundations of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking.

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The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read programme works with communities across Asia and the Pacific to address these challenges by creating storybooks, opening access, and supporting reading programs.

Let’s Read starts by working with writers and illustrators from local communities to create stories in which children see themselves represented in the characters and settings. Beautifully crafted folktales from ethnic communities in Nepal, fun stories of everyday science from Indonesia, and colorful tales of ocean life from Fiji are just a few examples of powerful local voices in Let’s Read storybooks. These are precisely the types of local voices that drew Uran to her favorite books.

The programme also utilises a community translation model to share stories between cultures and languages, creating a larger and more diverse collection of books in local languages.

Let’s Read creates open and free access to these beautiful storybooks through the Let’s Read digital library. Accessible through the web or Android or iOS apps, the digital library allows children and families to freely enjoy the entire collection of more than 10,500 books across 60 languages (and growing!).

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Digital access is critical in establishing reading routines among broad populations. However, when possible, Let’s Read also works with organisations to print bookstore-quality copies and provide these physical books to libraries, community centers, and schools.

Importantly, with the help of private and public sector organisations, Let’s Read works with community centers, libraries, and schools to create local programming that supports and encourages reading. Reading campaigns, play-based early childhood education, and community read-alouds, like the ones that helped Uran and her mom discover the joys of reading, are just a few of the ways Let’s Read supports children and families to read together.

Reading is a fundamental skill that allows all of us to participate in society. Supporting opportunities for families to establish early reading routines is critical to building strong early reading skills and fostering the curiosity, creativity, and wonderment that comes with being drawn into a good storybook.

Let’s Read is working hard to make Uran’s story a reality for children and their families across Asia and the Pacific. More than 5 million books were read on the Let’s Read library last year, from the Pacific Islands to Pakistan and Nepal to Indonesia.

Ensuring that children and their families have the support, opportunity, and connection to storybooks will develop our next generation of diverse critical thinkers, creative innovators, and inspiring leaders, thereby building a stronger world for us all.

Contributed by Kyle Barker, Director, Let’s Read programme, The Asia Foundation.