Today, on International Literacy Day, the Library of Congress Literacy Awards announced the Luminos Fund is the winner of its 2021 International Prize. The International Prize recognizes an organization making significant and measurable contributions to increasing literacy levels outside the United States.

“Luminos is honored to receive this prestigious award from the Library of Congress in recognition of our efforts to advance literacy around the world,” says Luminos CEO, Caitlin Baron. “With an estimated 24 million students predicted to drop out of school as a result of COVID-19 and 617 million children affected by acute learning loss, programs like ours that promote basic, essential literacy while helping children catch up have never been more important.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, over half of children in low- and middle-income countries could not read and understand a simple text by age 10. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where Luminos operates classrooms, that number increases to 87% of children. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation more dire.

Reading is a skill that literate people often take for granted, but which has the unique power to transform lives forever. Words and sentences guide you to the correct bus to visit your family, explain how much life-saving medication to take, and inform you about breaking news. The United Nations describes education as the key to escaping poverty, promoting equality, reaching gender equity, and more. For every additional year in school, an individual’s future earnings increase by as much as 10%. For girls, the risk of teen pregnancy decreases, as does the risk of maternal death.

“Literacy is essential to set children up for success in life,” says Phyllis Kurlander Costanza, CEO of UBS Optimus Foundation: a key Luminos funding partner. “Being able to read means having the ability to learn on your own — to pursue knowledge, understand and follow health advice, and navigate and contribute to civil society. Aided by the UBS Optimus Foundation, organizations like the Luminos Fund are critical to helping the hardest-to-reach children learn to read – thereby transforming their lives and their communities.”

The Luminos Fund operates classrooms in Ethiopia, Liberia, and Lebanon to help out-of-school and overaged children get a second chance at education and learn to read. Many of our students are the first in their families to go to school. Without basic literacy and numeracy skills, these children are at risk of being locked out of the education system forever. In our program, we balance a learning-by-doing, play-based approach with a phonics-based model, gently scripted to support first-time teachers in the classroom. Children learn to read with texts that reflect their lived experience, and through games and activities that place students at the center of teaching and learning.

By creating an atmosphere of joyful learning with continuous assessments to tailor instruction, students are excited to learn to read – and achieve remarkable results. In Liberia, Luminos students start the program reading merely five words per minute on average. At the end of the program, our students read an average of 39 words per minute: an achievement few of their peers have attained.

Bertukan and Abenet are two sisters in one of the Luminos Fund’s Ethiopian classrooms and among the first in their family to learn to read. Their father, Elias, is a farmer who wants a better future for his daughters. “I want them to continue learning… to decide their own future and not marry early,” Elias explains. He attributes his difficult life as a farmer to his lack of an education and was eager to send his girls to the free Luminos program to begin their journeys to literacy and a brighter future.

Elias with his daughters Bertukan (age nine, left) and Abenet (age eleven, right).

Abenet now helps her parents read documents at home. “Literacy is my favorite subject!” she says. “I was eager to read and write.” Bertukan chimes in that they both like their classroom where “there are lots of posted learning materials. We like to read these materials before and after classes” – an enriching part of education made possible with their new reading skills.

Elias is proud of his girls and excited for their futures. “Education is like a torch which shows you direction – which way to go,” he says. 

The Luminos Fund has helped over 152,000 children learn to read and write with the generous support of our funding partners including UBS Optimus Foundation. We are honored to receive the 2021 International Prize from the Library Congress Literacy Awards on International Literacy Day, and look forward to helping thousands more children like Abenet and Bertukan learn to read.

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The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

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