Literacy for a billion with Bollywood songs

by PlanetRead Vetted since 2011 Site Visit Verified
Brij Kothari with children
Brij Kothari with children

PlanetRead's work with same-language subtitles for literacy has been honored with a 2017 iF Social Impact Prize! Winning this prestigious award--selected by the top names in design and given in support of ideas that make progress toward one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—will allow PlanetRead to make further progress with SLS initiatives, from subtitling film songs in multiple languages to creating anibooks for early-grade reading. 

The iF Social Impact Prize honors PlanetRead for "effect[ing] social change through design." "What does design have to do with literacy?" you may be wondering. As the iF website points out, "Often, innovation is the key to making an unique social impact, and since 'design is how it works' (Steve Jobs), design-minded people are in a unique position to make a difference in the way a service or product functions."

One such design-minded person is Brij Kothari, the founder of PlanetRead, whose innovative thinking about literacy started with his own "aha! moment" of wishing for same-language subtitles for a movie in a language he was studying. He recognized, too, that many "literate" people in India lacked the ability to read a newspaper. He wondered if adding SLS to content that people want to know, such as song lyrics, would help them move from identifying letters to reading words. He began to study the effect of adding SLS to popular film songs on television. The results were persuasive--you can read about them on our website (see the link below).

The UN Sustainable Development Goals show the path to a better world by 2030, and their aim is to "reach the furthest behind first." SDG 4 is "Quality Education," and PlanetRead's work strives to help everyone in India—children and adults, in school and out of school, rural and urban—become fully literate.

Go to the link below to learn more about the iF Social Impact Prize on the iF's ongoing "World Design Guide."

We're thrilled that Brij's simple, scalable idea has attracted this attention. Thank you to the iF Social Impact Prize committee, and thanks to you for your support!

Winners of the 2017 iF Social Impact Prize
Winners of the 2017 iF Social Impact Prize


We are delighted to let you know that PlanetRead was recently featured in "BBC Future untold world". Untold World is a special series from BBC Future that covers technology’s global impact, far beyond Silicon Valley. Discover more stories about how technology is profoundly changing underreported communities the world over.

This article is an excellent narration of our work starting from the very beginning right up to the latest discussions with the top government policymakers. And what's more, this article has already been translated into 3 more languages, namely: Hindi, Vietnamese and Bahasa Indonesia.

Here is an excerpt from the article: 

Yashoda, a resident in rural India, hops on the bus to a nearby village to visit relatives. Three years ago, she might not have been able to make that trip to see her family. She wouldn’t have been able to read the signs. Like a lot of women in her village, Yashoda never went to school. But a few years ago, the 42-year-old attended adult literacy classes held in Kalambusre, her village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, and gained basic knowledge of the alphabet and numbers in her mother tongue, Marathi.

Beyond that, she couldn’t do much more than try reading simple words in a newspaper. But now she can read bus stop instructions. So how did Yashoda bring her abilities to the next level? Surprisingly – by watching a lot of TV. She used a programme that combines eye-tracking technology with karaoke-like subtitles that helps people learn the words at the same rate as they’re spoken or sung. It could be one way nations build up literacy globally

In 2011, there were 780 million literate people living in India, or 74% of the population. But an estimate from PlanetRead, an Indian non-government organisation, shows that at least 400 million “literate” Indians – mostly rural and semi-urban – cannot actually read a simple text in everyday life.

But the twist? There are also 780 million Indians who watch on average more than three hours of TV every day. Like many of them, Yashoda spends a lot of her time relishing Marathi-language movies on Zee Talkies, a private Indian broadcast channel. She enjoys reading along with the subtitles displayed with the songs. And it’s improved her literacy... 

Read the remaining article here:


Baseline study in Delhi 1
Baseline study in Delhi 1

Dear Friends, 

We are happy to announce that we have just successfully completed the baseline study for the ongoing project "AniBooks for Early Grade Reading". Click here to read more about this project. 

The main goal of our project is to produce 40 AniBooks (animated stories powered by SLS) in English and Hindi and distribute them on all "screens" that children have access to. We have partnered with organizations that work at the grassroots level to distribute our the AniBooks. Before we distribute the AniBooks to the children, we need to do a baseline study to understand their current reading levels so that we can do another study at the end of our program (i.e. after 9 months) to see if AniBooks have helped in improving their reading skills. 

As part of our direct intervention, we reached out to Society for All Round Development (SARD), an NGO based out of New Delhi. We had a meeting with Sudhir Bhatnagar, CEO SARD on 31st May where Brij Kothari (Director, PlanetRead) discussed working with SARD to conduct the baseline study and also carry out the implementation. Following Brij Kothari’s meeting with SARD, the PlanetRead team comprising of Nirav Shah, Hema Jadhvani, Ketan Deshmukh and Vijay Shinalkar visited the SARD in New Delhi from 19th June till 23rd June. The PlanetRead team conducted pilots with the AniBooks and spoke to the SARD team on how the baseline can be conducted and also planned steps for the implementation of AniBooks. Based on this preliminary visit, the PlanetRead team again visited SARD in the last week of July 2017 and conducted a baseline study. 

We went to a total of 12 government schools in the outskirts of New Delhi. There were 4 classes in each school and each class had approximately 50 students. So, we have covered roughly 2400 children in 12 schools for the baseline study. It took us 5 full days to do a trial and then conduct the baseline in all those 12 schools. Once the baseline survey was completed, we setup TVs in those government schools, which will be playing the AniBooks periodically. 

Our research team is now going through the survey forms from the baseline study. We will be analyzing all the data and preparing a detailed baseline report. 

More updates coming soon. Thank you for all the support! 

Baseline study in Delhi 2
Baseline study in Delhi 2
Baseline study in Delhi 3
Baseline study in Delhi 3
Baseline study in Delhi 4
Baseline study in Delhi 4


Schoolchildren testing activities
Schoolchildren testing activities

Hello to our friends and all supporters of same-language subtitling for literacy!

Our ongoing AniBooks for Early Grade Reading project is making great strides. For this project, we're creating animated stories (AniBooks) with same-language subtitles that can help children in grades 1-4 get a jump-start on reading. Our ultimate goal is to reach the rural interior of India where there is a dearth of quality reading material for children.

We've produced a total of 30 stories now (including "Aaloo Maaloo Kaaloo" seen below), and we've created educational activities for the first 20 AniBooks. We've conducted pilot projects testing the stories and activities with schoolchildren. And, finally, we've visited outreach partners who are helping to make our content more widely available. It's exciting to see the project coming to fruition!

Producing an AniBook is a multi-step process that goes something like this:

First, we select a story that seems like a good choice for beginning readers. Then the art and animation work begins. For many stories, an artist is chosen to create content. After our in-house animation team storyboards the project, the artist submits scenes that our animators bring to life. A voiceover artist who speaks clear, standard Hindi then records the narration according to our guidelines. Same-language subtitles are added and timed to change color as each word is spoken. (The same-language subtitles turn a cartoon into a reading opportunity for children.) When the story is nearly finished, we ask reviewers for feedback, and we also bring in music composers to create a background score that children will enjoy. Among our composers are one with a background in therapeutic music for children—and another who works with noted composer A.R. Rahman!

When the art, narration, same-language subtitles, and music are all finalized, we make the AniBooks available on YouTube. (Watch "Aaloo Maaloo Kaaloo" as a sample.)

In order to make each AniBook as helpful as possible for children learning to read, we are adding activities that grow out of the research we've been doing on this project. Kids in grades 1-4 need most help with vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, problem solving, and letters and sounds, so those are the areas we've concentrated on for the activities.

To see how the stories and activities work, obviously, we needed audiences! So PlanetRead team members went to schools in Pondicherry and Ahmedabad to test the content with kids. At one school, children in grade 4 struggled to do the activities, so we created simpler ones. At other schools, kids had no trouble with the activities, and we may even want to create more challenging ones. (We'll pre-assess students in the future so we offer activities that are targeted to their needs.) But what a joy it was to see the children enjoying themselves while learning! Some asked for more stories and even for more worksheets. One teacher told us, "Children love reading from pictures! They understand well and learn fast. All their attention is focused."

In addition to working with kids, we've been doing outreach with partners who will help us distribute the AniBook content. Some, like Project DRUV, are already distributing AniBooks, and we hope to have analytics from them soon. Another partner, 4SL, creates solar-powered wi-fi enabled "digital classrooms" that can be used anywhere, even in places without electricity. We're excited about the potential to get AniBooks in front of more children thanks to partners like these.

More updates coming your way soon—and thank you for your support for same-language subtitles to expand literacy!  Our inexpensive, cost-effective literacy programs make the most of even the smallest contribution. We would be very grateful if you would consider making a donation today. 

Boys hard at work after watching AniBook story
Boys hard at work after watching AniBook story
Schoolchildren and teacher watching AniBook story
Schoolchildren and teacher watching AniBook story
Screenshot from "Aaloo Maaloo Kaaloo"
Screenshot from "Aaloo Maaloo Kaaloo"
"Turtle's Flute"

We're delighted to announce that we've completed our third milestone in the "AniBooks for Early Grade Reading" project supported by USAID and READAlliance. Things are happening very quickly!

AniBooks are animated, digitally delivered stories that use PlanetRead founder Brij Kothari's innovation, Same-Language Subtitling (SLS), to help children make advances in reading and critical thinking. The reason AniBooks appeal to students is no surprise: children everywhere like to watch cartoons! And with the addition of SLS, these cartoons are educational, too. Children watch the subtitles and get inescapable, automatic reading practice that helps them become truly literate.

The main goal of the "AniBooks for Early Grade Reading" project is to integrate AniBooks into the schools and lives of children in Grades 1-4 (roughly ages 6-10) to support the development of reading skills. The project targets select schools in the priority Hindi states (Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh), in partnership with organisations that have the experience and infrastructure to distribute and deploy digital content on existing screens in schools and homes. 

Where are we so far on this project?

  • We've created 20 Hindi-language AniBooks. Among the animated stories newly translated to Hindi are "The Elephant King" ("Haathi Raja"), "The Red Raincoat" ("Laal Barsaati"), and "Topsy Turvy" ("Ulat Palat").
  • We've met with reading specialists and educators to determine the types of activities that would be most helpful as accompaniments to the AniBooks, and we've created educational activities in Hindi for the first 10 of our 20 Hindi AniBooks. The activities focus on letters and sounds (for students in lower grades), vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, and problem-solving.
  • We've signed agreements with four distribution partners who have the experience and infrastructure to help us distribute AniBooks to children in the priority Hindi states.

We're very excited to get this project underway! We recently did field testing with grades 1-2 at a rural government school to get a sense of the level of understanding among children who have few reading resources available. Learning through association, connecting concepts and ideas, and inferring information are meaningful skills, and children in such schools sometimes have little experience with them. Our lessons were based on the AniBook "Turtle's Flute" in Tamil, and in the first session, we asked the children to draw pictures showing some things they expect from the story.

We've also been testing our newly developed Hindi activities with children who are students of Hindi as a second language and have basic knowledge of reading and writing in Hindi. They watched three stories—"The Greatest Treasure," "The Whispering Palms," and "Too Many Bananas"—and did activities on paper.

These field tests help us understand what children of various backgrounds and educational levels need from the stories and activities we're developing. Stay tuned for more about our findings in future updates from PlanetRead!

We are very excited at the strides we're making toward getting AniBooks in classrooms in India. And, as always, your support helps us immeasurably! Our inexpensive, cost-effective literacy programs make the most of your contributions, and we would be very grateful if you would consider making a donation today.

Field test with children at government school
Field test with children at government school
Activity field tester Joanna
Activity field tester Joanna
A completed activity from one of our field testers
A completed activity from one of our field testers

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Organization Information


Location: Pondicherry - India
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Brij Kothari
Founder and President
Piedmont, CA United States

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