The BookBox project: how television can shape literacy

September 2006 -

It is an idea with great promise. Transforming children's stories into animated books for television and digital media, using Same Language Subtitling (SLS), can change how millions read in India. Conceived by Dr. Brij Kothari with his team of researchers, this novel programme called The BookBox is edutainment at its best. Kothari: "It synchronizes the text, audio, and visual media to create an educational and entertaining reading experience for children and even adults who still have a child in them!" This year the BookBox project is a finalist at the international business plan competition of the Business in Development Network, which stimulates small and medium enterprises that have the potential to raise living standards in developing countries.

Literacy presents a chequered picture in India, swinging between 50% and 100% literacy rates in different states. News reports document the hunger to learn among children across states, but the poor attendance of school teachers coupled with the absence of a reading environment outside the school discourage many from completing their education. This means that millions of people remain non-literate or possess extremely basic literacy skills.

Recognizing the inadequacies of primary education in many parts of India while working at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Brij Kothari developed and honed synchronized Same Language Subtitling as an effective and inexpensive tool for enhancing the reading skills of semi-literate and non-literate viewers. It is the crux of his Planet Read programme to improve real literacy in India and other countries with similar hurdles. Kothari thought of developing SLS for Hindi film songs, a hugely popular music genre, and tested his idea at a couple of crowded railway stations. He found that the television sets with SLS attracted more viewers than those without. Currently, a few television programmes in India use SLS (in seven languages) for film songs, movies and serials. Through these television shows, reading becomes a non-intrusive part of entertainment and has a dramatic impact on the reading proficiency of over 300 million early literate people.


Anibook screenshot

The BookBox is an initiative of  Kotharis’ Planet Read campaign and has already created animated books (AniBooks) in over 20 languages. Television penetration is high in India (over 500 million viewers) and the project’s goal is to increase production of such books in all Indian languages for broadcast on Indian state-run and private television networks. If the AniBooks project wins the Business in Development Challenge this year, it can grow into a socially and financially profitable initiative of mammoth proportions, making literacy mean much more than simply reading the alphabet.