Digital Reading | November 5, 2023

Mobilizing Home-Based, Family-Centered Literacy Initiatives: A Global Imperative for Societal Progress


The prevailing discourse surrounding discussions on child poverty and family structures often overlooks a critical factor in children’s development: early reading and literacy, facilitated by parental involvement. Rebecca Chandler Leege, CEO of Worldreader, explores the need, benefits, and potential strategies for a global policy initiative designed to empower parents as their children’s primary educators.

A family reads together on a mobile phone

Recent socio-political discussions on family configurations and child poverty have emphasized the challenges facing single-parent/caregiver households. However, these debates often overlook a key factor in children’s long-term success: early childhood literacy. Despite overwhelming evidence that supports the role of parents and caregivers as children’s first educators, there remains a conspicuous absence of comprehensive, global-scale policy interventions aimed at bolstering early home-based reading and literacy.

The true cost of neglecting literacy

The world is facing a learning crisis. With 64% of the world’s children in learning poverty, UNICEF reports that less than three-quarters of children aged 3–5 are developmentally on track, and three-quarters of young people in 92 countries are off-track to acquire the skills needed for employment.

The economic implications of failing to address literacy from an early age are staggering. Underdeveloped literacy skills could diminish a nation’s GDP by up to 2% (McKinsey & Company, 2022). This data highlights literacy not only as an instrument for personal agency but also as an economic necessity. 

Failing to address the learning crisis means condemning millions of children and young people to never reach their potential to live a healthy, successful, fulfilling life. UNESCO estimates that if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. Those are 171 million people who could have the tools to support the next generations, build just societies, and promote equitable and sustainable growth in their communities. But to do so, they need to have their education needs met first, starting long before they enter the classroom.

Why we must invest in parent-centric education

Early family reading has enormous potential to address the crisis. Numerous studies, such as those referenced by the National Education Association, demonstrate a strong correlation between parental involvement in early reading and subsequent academic performance, particularly in vocabulary and reading comprehension. To solve the global learning crisis, global education efforts must therefore support family reading.

Focusing on parents and caregivers in early literacy has a positive impact that goes beyond individual benefits. Research from institutions such as the Brookings Institution suggests that such strategies can contribute to breaking cyclical poverty and the ongoing challenges associated with single-parent households. Educating all parents and caregivers on the importance of early reading, and providing them with the reading tools and pedagogical support they need to facilitate their child’s reading journey is also key to supporting mothers, who are often left alone in facing the responsibility of educating their children when they’re not in school.

The need for a globally coordinated policy, thereby, transcends educational domains and becomes a pressing issue for economic stability and social justice.

The question that looms then is: Why has there been no widespread mobilization akin to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to address this critical issue? USIP distinguished fellow Thomas Sheehy, who was a staff member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee when PEPFAR passed, highlights how on top of saving an estimated 25 million lives, PEPFAR has made a significant “contribution to peace and stability” in many countries. If prioritizing health to save millions of lives can promote a more peaceful world, prioritizing evidence-based, successful reading practices to educate millions of children can help build a healthier, more just and prosperous future.

Strategies for capacity-building

Our research in Kenya shows that caregivers are excited about reading with their children but often lack confidence in their own reading skills, and we know that too many families around the world don’t have access to reading material in the first place. The engagement of caregivers in their children’s early education can benefit from a multi-faceted approach:

  1. Public awareness: Analogous to how PEPFAR capitalized on mass media to promulgate awareness of HIV/AIDS, similar methods could educate parents about the importance of early reading and literacy.
  2. Resource dissemination: Providing universally accessible, culturally diverse reading materials, particularly in under-resourced communities, has the potential to catalyze literacy rates. Organizations like Worldreader exemplify the efficacy of such efforts.
  3. Pedagogical empowerment: Equipping caregivers with the necessary pedagogical tools and insights can foster a conducive home learning environment. Numerous academic publications, including those appearing in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, validate the major impact of parent/caregiver training on childhood literacy.
  4. Technological synergy: The integration of educational technology can offer scalable, individualized learning experiences, while also providing parents with invaluable progress metrics. Mobile technology also empowers parents and caregivers to tailor family reading time to their needs and busy schedule, allowing them to access reading materials anytime, anywhere, at the touch of a finger.

The time for polemic discussions is past. Now, it’s time to move from ideation to action, for the consequences of inaction are not only individual but societal, impeding progress on a grand scale.

Rebecca Chandler Leege is the CEO of Worldreader. Learn more about Rebecca.


  • Kristof, N. (2023). “The Two-Parent Privilege.”
  • National Education Association. (2019). “Family Involvement in Early Literacy.”
  • McKinsey & Company. (2022). “The Economic Impact of Low Literacy.”
  • Worldreader Impact Report. (2021). “Elevating Global Literacy Rates.”
  • Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk. (2018). “The Impact of Parental Involvement on Literacy.”
  • Brookings Institution. (2020). “The Role of EdTech in Scaling Parent-Centric Literacy Programs.”