All News & Blog Posts

A Tell-Tale Start: Speaking Books Give Voice to a New Health Literacy Approach

speaking books | talking books | health literacy | ICE maternal health

The world is simply too large a classroom for its limited number of teachers. This strains education systems around the world and equally health systems around the world: how do we improve access to the knowledge everyone should have to the farthest reaches of the planet? Do we first teach everyone to read?

An organization called Speaking Books has a conversation-starting solution. They’ve remodeled what many recall as a favorite children’s toy into an “edutainment” tool capable of teaching many people at the touch of a button. Introduced in 2005 at the Global Health Conference in Washington, DC, the organization has since expanded to offer educational speaking books aimed at improving literacy, health education, and social development, in myriad languages.

The Speaking Book is a large colorful picture book equipped with a panel of buttons that recite the text for each page. The books deal with subjects ranging from spread of disease, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and malaria, to psychological concerns and social issues such as helping amputees deal with trauma, teen suicide prevention, and a care guide for orphans and other ‘child-headed-households.’

Speaking Books even offers a small selection of maternal- and children’s health specific books: “Maternal Health Care in Ethiopia,” “Instructing New Mothers on New Pneumonia Vaccine,” and “Clinical Trial for Malaria Treatment in Pregnancy.” Each book in the organization’s repertoire is tailored to a specific region, with culturally-appropriate illustrations and narrated in a given region’s familiar language, often by a local celebrity.

We’ve previously posted on TeachAIDS’ multi-lingual webinars, and Speaking Books similarly strives to target specific languages and dialects often underrepresented by global health education efforts, in addition to its cadre of books in more popular languages. Their metrics?

-45 titles in 20 languages
-distributed in 25 countries.

The array of languages is impressive, with books spoken in broad-reaching languages such as English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin, as well as regional languages such as Zulu, Swahili, Hindu, and Creole, and even many geo-specific languages such as Xitsonga, Pedi, and Comorian. By focusing on provincial languages and dialects, Speaking Books targets populations many other educational tools leave out, extending the reach of their health care education messages to literate and illiterate populations alike who would otherwise not receive it.

Not only do the books extend education efforts much further and wider--Speaking Books estimates (based on a South African study) that if each book is directly accessed by 200 individuals, it can indirectly affect an astonishing 11,000 people in the community--but they are effective, too. Speaking Books cites several studies attesting to readers’ significantly improved knowledge on subjects presented in the books.

The impact of these books comes in large part from their accessibility to the illiterate. Illiteracy is an enormous factor hindering health education efforts in low-income nations, especially in rural communities, and a primary obstacle the audio component of the speaking books serves to address. The books also serve as an avenue to discussion of secondary topics--physicians have noted that the HIV/AIDS books open conversations about depression related to the illness, for example, a topic which often receives inadequate attention.

There’s no question the tool is effective on a broad scale within communities. Speaking Books has targeted Africa in particular, based on the languages in which it has developed books, and given this, it would have a lot to gain from expanding further into the MCH realm. With Africa’s high rates of maternal mortality--stemming from everything from cervical and breast cancers to HIV/AIDS and lack of education about sexual health--creating more educational speaking books targeted at men, women, and children would go a long way towards teaching the many students these books have the potential to reach.

By: Lizi Jones

This post was filed under: