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Students read aloud to help kids in Third World countries

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Vancouver Talmud Torah teachers Jessie Claudio, centre, and Susan Stiller receive instruction from Aaron Friedland, left, on how to use the Simbi technology.

Aaron Friedland, 27, is a Vancouverite who’s on a mission to promote global literacy and improve the curricula and access to education for students in refugee camps and Third World countries.

He’s achieving this through a literacy program in which students at North American schools read and record books online. The voice recordings become part of a global library that’s accessible to children as far away as India and Sierra Leone, who read along with the recordings to help improve their reading abilities.

The Simbi Literacy Program is literally changing lives around the world. It is currently used by over 27,000 learners in 34 countries and each week, up to 2,300 new voice recordings of books are added to the library.

Friedland, Simbi’s CEO, is actively partnering with elementary schools in Canada and the United States that want to participate, and there’s something in it for everyone. For North American students, the act of reading aloud is extremely beneficial for their comprehension, fluency and vocabulary skills, while the fact that others will be listening to their voices adds motivation and incentive to the process.

For educators, the voice recordings of their students facilitate an understanding of their literacy progress and benchmark their fluency. And for Friedland and his team, the $1,500 annual fee that schools pay to join the program helps create educational infrastructure in refugee settlements and other far flung areas where it is in dire need.

“What sets Simbi apart is that link to the world stage,” said Adrienne Gear, a B.C. author and literacy expert. “Teachers have access to lots of online platforms that support reading skills, but what makes Simbi so unique is their link to global citizenship and supporting global education in the world.”

The B.C. educational curriculum changed three years ago and there’s a new emphasis on social-emotional learning, she added.

“Because of that emphasis, we want kids to see themselves as global citizens, so there’s a need for teachers to find ways for their students to do that. If you’re 12 years old, you can pick up garbage or visit seniors in a seniors home, but it’s hard for kids that age to have a real impact. Simbi opens up the world for kids and gives them a reason to read online. They recognize that if they read this story, they are helping someone around the world.”

The Grade 5 class at Vancouver Talmud Torah (VTT), where Friedland attended elementary school, is one of 1,500 classrooms in North America that have signed up for the program and, in late October, Friedland and his team visited the school to train the teachers on how to use it.

Jessie Claudio, VTTs Grade 5 humanities teacher, was excited to use it. “As a teacher, I want to build kids who are confident readers. By reading aloud, they build their reading confidence, presentation and comprehension skills,” she said. “But the ability to share their voice recordings with other children gives our students a sense of ownership and pride in their reading.”

Over the next few months, Friedland and his team will be creating partnerships between the North American schools and the communities to whom they are providing educational support. “These partnerships will be a tangible way for schools to start understanding the impact of what Simbi does and how their membership fees create change in the settlements where they are being used,” he said.

He’s proud to be at the helm of a technology that motivates learners to read books out loud for a good cause. “Simbi is about the impact your voice can have when it is heard around the world,” he said. “When students read out loud on Simbi, they begin to understand that impact, because there are learners around the world reading along with them and listening to their words.”

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