Help Please: Can you help me win the Literacy XPrize? (And change the World)

Want to help change the world? ย 

The other day I was listening to the Tim Ferriss podcastย ย with Tony Robbins (Tony Robbins!) and Peter Diamandis about their new $15m X PRIZE.

The first $10m Xprize was to put people in space. ย Sir Richard Branson bought the company that won that X Prize. ( The same one that sadly crashed last week,)

Now of course if you do something as hugely successful as that you want to do it again. ย ย So they were searching for the next big X Prize.

And the whole point is that it has to be something huge for humanity.

So what is the next big challenge for the world?

Health or medicine? ย Hunger or feeding people?

Well what they came up with is ….. literacy.

There just aren’t enough teachers in the world to teach everything.

And that is their next X Prize, to createย an android app that will let millions of children around the world learn to read in 18 months.

Now I’m sat there thinking, ย “There must be a catch somewhere. ย These are big, huge names involved with this project. Way, way, way in a totally different league to what we live in.”

But the more I listened the more it sounded like what we do everyday.


Genki Phonics in Tanzania.

With Genki Phonics I designed it to be exactly for the developing communities they are talking about. ย I simplified everything down to just one piece of A4 paper and we got the results in Tanzania in 6 weeks, not 18 months.

And I guess I’m probably the only person to have English learning software on an 800,000 tablet project in a developing country.


Teachers in Thailand with Genki English on their tablets.

And of course we have you guys, some of the best teachers in the world in the Genki English community!

I’m still thinking I must be missing something, that there’s got to be a catch somewhere. ย But doesn’t this sound like something we can do? ย Or am I just being silly?

So I’m writing this blog post as a quick brainstorming session, to see if this is something where we can contribute, to see if this is possible and I’d love to get your feedback.

What we have to do.

Having a look through the guidelines it looks like all we have to do is to make an app of the Genki Phonics programme.

To basically get the app to do the part that the teacher currently does.

The meat of “reading” is to see the letters, sound them out and make sense of what they say.

(As you’ve seen in my phonics workshopsย the sounds don’t come from the teacher (or the app), the key is that the kids see the letters and sound them out themselves.)

So I’m thinking we just need to show the kids the letters, words, sentences then stories from the programme and the app listens to what they say.

The X Prize say they want the app to be used for several hours a day. ย So I’m guessing that we need some form of game mechanic to keep kids addicted (like with the current Genki English games?)

So how do we do this? ย How do we take the Genki Phonics and make it into an app? ย What about the gestures? ย Or pictures?

(One other thing is that the guidelines don’t seem to address what to do about comprehension. ย  Sugata Mitra’s schools in India got the kids “reading” with phonics, but the kids didn’t *understand* what they were reading, hence why Newcastle Uni called me in. So that is something to think about maybe?)

At this stage there’s no coding done yet so all ideas are on the table. ย  You have total freedom, so how would you design it?

And is there something big that I’m missing here? ย Doesn’t it sound too easy????

I’d love to get your help and feedback on this in the blog comments, ย you are always so supportive!

And as Tim Ferriss says, this could be the single biggest thing for humanity this decade. ย Which I think is quite amazing.

Be genki,


P.S ย Yes this is a $15m prize but I have a feeling most of the money that isn’t taken up with developing costs (apps are very expensive!) would morally have to go into a project to get the software out there!

P.P.S. ย The prize also covers numeracy and writing. ย But the emphasis is on reading and as that is where we have the experience that’s what I’ve focussed on so far.

P.P.S. ย As an extra incentive to get your input, the winner of last month’s comment competition was …. Carma!ย  Just by commenting on this post you might end up winning a Genki English CD download of your choice! ๐Ÿ™‚

Richard Graham

Hello, I'm Richard Graham. When I was a kid I found school to be sooooo boring... So I transformed my way of teaching. I listened to what the kids were really wanting to say and taught it in ways they really wanted to learn. The results were magical. Now I help teachers just like you teach amazing lessons and double your incomes!

70 Responses to “Help Please: Can you help me win the Literacy XPrize? (And change the World)”

  1. susana

    Hello Richard,
    This is an amazing opportunity… actually my dream for Sicily and Italy! but this is even better… are the only person who can do it…you already have all the material..Just have to put yourself into the app as teaching voice..this is for you! wishing you all the best….you deserve it for your hard work and creativity…go for it!

  2. Dacha

    Wow Richard- I can just feel your excitement pulsating through the text! And it IS exciting! I don’t think that there is a “catch”- I don’t see one… As you mention though there is a challenge: how to keep kids using the app for a few hours each day? The phonics you’ve showed us is more of a “few minutes per lesson” approach? There is also – the motivation part. Winning in a game could be motivating – or maybe passing on a next level in a game. Yes Genki games are great ( awesome in fact) but you’ll need to adapt them to be used in an app. Another motivation ( just brainstorming here:) could be a selection of texts on the topics that interest the kids: animals, movie stars… I have no idea how to make this work- but this way the kids will want to learn phonics in order to be able to read an interesting text. You know how at the beginning of the school year – you always look up the last lessons in the text book, to see what you’ll be soon able to do. I think it’s a great project!I didn’t edit my “suggestions “- just brainstorming ! Best of luck! Dacha

  3. gumby

    This all sounds very exciting! The GE phonics program is already off to a great start. My concern is that can it be done without the GE songs? Without the songs, they may not be able to understand the meaning of the words. Are you thinking of including the songs and phonics?

  4. Jessica

    Hi Richard! Wow, what a great challenge!
    I love the idea of an app–now that I teach kindergarten in inner-city Dallas, I still use a lot of Genki phonics techniques. An app would be amazing for US, too. One way to add comprehension to the mix might be a twist on your phonics stories. Have read-along versions that end with several comprehension questions: tap the picture of the characters from the story. What might happen next? And so forth. Answering correctly gives you experience points that you can earn to buy new stories.
    I’ll think some more about this. How exciting!

  5. Richard

    Thank you Susana!

    @Dacha: All good ideas! Localised texts sounds great, and with the prize money it might be possible to implement! The 5 Minutes Phonics is what I showed you guys, and we just do the same thing in Tanzania, but they do it several times spread throughout the day, so fingers crossed that should be OK!

    @Gumby: Yeah, that is what concerns me. It looks like the prize guidelines are written by tech guys who see literacy as the problem but don’t realise you need the spoken language to make sense of it. I was surprised they want to do it in English too, everything we’ve learnt says local language literacy is what we need (it would be awesome to do Swahili Phonics!) We’ll see what happens. But I can’t imagine many other competing teams having an English programme as well as the literacy!

    @Jessica: The winning app will become open source so they want to use it everywhere!

  6. Trevor

    An app would need to give feedback if there is no teacher involved.
    Eg the user sees the letters cat they read the word into the mic. And then the app would return a picture of a cat to confirm their reading and pronunciation was correct. Of course dictation activities are also ways of giving feedback.

  7. Richard

    Oooo, I like the idea of using confirmation with pictures, that would be a great reward system!!

  8. Margit

    I agree with Trevor.

    And this is something I was going to talk to you at next chance:
    Kids need confirmation!

    When I have the kids read the stories at home, many of them don’t do it, because they don’T have the confirmation that it is correct.
    One mother got another app down, where she can give in the word
    (let’s say “bed”) and the app says “bed” and shows the picture.

    I did warn her not to make it a custom, so that the kid won’T start reading from looking at the picture, and I think she got this.
    It is a tricky thing, as we don’T want to tell them the reading but have them read, as you mentioned above, this works in class with a teacher, but not at home, where they are alone.

    I like the ideas to confirm with pictures! Great idea.

  9. Richard

    Yeah, you’d make it so when they spoke the correct reading correctly then they’d hear the native pronunciation with something like “Yeah! That’s right … b e d bed!” and the picture!

    I wonder if android voice recognition is good enough to do individual phonemes???

    The tricky bit is what to do about the pictures part. Ideally we want the kids to say what the picture is, but if they don’t speak English should we give them hints on this bit? Or even a song?????

  10. Dacha

    After having ” slept on it” and read all the excellent comments, I’m wondering if what seems like a big challenge is the total absence of a teacher….I mean by that a “teacher like” figure – you know like Sugata Mitra’s English grannies:). Someone who encourages, explains – these functions will need to be built into the software. But also someone who has empathy. I maybe wrong …& can only speak for myself but I establish a personal relationship with my students & it’s based on empathy. When I see one of the kids discouraged for example- I’ll try to adapt my teaching &/or get other students to help out. Come to think of it maybe this is what seems complicated to me, this one on one: student- tablet. In Mitra’s projects they work in groups. From there comes motivation & encouragement & empathy… Maybe I’m going too far with this but we’ll be needing some sort of artificial intelligence…Or maybe – simpler- a way they can ( if they want to ) use the software together…Sort of like playing Mario cart with multiple players…Also – definitely – why english only & not their native language ? Keep us posted! Dacha

  11. Angelina

    Hi Richard, wow you can do this you are ‘living’ what they are looking for. I am sure you will win it ๐Ÿ™‚ make a Genki role of support for us all to support your application, you will have soooo many signatures. Just let us know what you want to do. I think what you have achieved is amazing and so are you.
    Wishing you all the success in the world, so excited for you.

  12. Richard

    Thank you Angelina!

    @Dacha: No worries on the encouragement/motivation side of things, the kids in these communities are hungry to learn! And actually removing the average teacher usually makes it easier – think how kids get addicted to computer games at home. Multiplayer/peer learning side of things is indeed the big buzz at the moment, but a huge thing to do, so I’m thinking to maybe keep it lean and simple at the moment. Always good to get the ideas down though!

  13. Martin (mjwenzel)

    The input from the students is common in language apps (actually making us speak out the language despite there being no one physically listening to us).

    Another cool thing to test comprehension would be to have a part where the app shows a word and later sentences and the kids must draw what it is…of course, this would be incredibly difficult to implement, since the app would need to be able to recognize so much drawing.

  14. Chris Cooper

    I just listened to the podcast too and Tim Ferriss made the excellent point that he was struggling with the alphabet in kindergarten until someone explained to him that learning it would help him read books, so Dacha’s point about linking to articles that interest the kids is a good one I think.

    You would probably need a whole range of texts to meet the interests of a wide range of personalities, would linking to something like Project Gutenberg be a good idea? One potential problem with this is that all the texts are old, but there are a lot of classics on there.

    My other idea was based on my childhood love of computer games like Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max (I think they’re called point and click games). The games basically tell a story and you have to help the characters overcome a challenge before moving to the next stage of the story.

    Could something similar be done by answering questions / talking to other characters in the game using voice recognition?

  15. Richard

    @Martin: Great to hear of your experience with the input side of apps. Do you know of any apps that can recognize individual phonemes on their own? (e.g. able to distinguish just the “b” or “d” sounds without them being parts of words?) And how good is android at doing this? I’d love to try them out.

    Great with the drawing ideas, and of course that leads into creative writing if we decided to go that far!! (I have to do a blog post about that, remind me!)

    @Chris: Yes indeed, fantastic point from Tim there, I bet most teachers would never have even considered that – I know I hadn’t !!!

    Texts wise, it’s a great option for extra reading when they have finished the course. Part way through the course the challenge is of course to make sure they only contain the phonemes studied so far.

    Sam & Max – I remember them! ๐Ÿ™‚ Now stories, yes, that is the one big thing that is missing from Genki English as a whole. I’d love to have stories to tie everything together. Or even better offering different stories which cover the same lessons.

    Actually, anyone fancy doing that for the Genki English curriculum??? Write a story that ties all the lessons together? Each lesson in the curriculum adding a new chapter to the story, like a comic book building up page by page. Now that would be amazing!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Richard

    Quite a few people have written asking me just what the XPrize people are looking for.

    Compared with what most of us do, it is quite basic. (And maybe a little old fashioned??)

    Here are their objectives:

    Letter name knowledge โ€“ the ability to recognize and name the 26 uppercase and
    lowercase letters used in the English language

    (Putting this first suggests they are still in the old US way of learning to read, rather than being phonics based. So using phonics will have a huge advantage compared with other applicants!)

    โ€ข Phonemic awareness and letter sound knowledge โ€“ the ability to understand the
    sounds associated with each letter of the alphabet

    (Cool, the easy part!)

    โ€ข Familiar word reading โ€“ the ability to automatically recognize and memorize
    commonly used words (โ€œsight wordsโ€) without having to โ€œdecodeโ€ or sound them out

    (From a modern teaching point of view this looks very old fashioned. Sight reading at the expense of decoding does seem a little strange in this day and age. Is this just a lack of knowledge of the reading process or something else I’m missing?)

    โ€ข Unfamiliar word reading โ€“ the ability to use strategies, such as replacement with a
    familiar word, to decipher unfamiliar words

    (I have no idea what this is about, it seems again like a very strange thing to ask. Does anyone have experience with this?)

    โ€ข Oral reading fluencyโ€“ the ability to read a text accurately and fluently

    ( No worries here and certainly achievable. Notice no mention of comprehension at this point.!)

    โ€ข Reading comprehension โ€“ the ability read and understand a text

    ( If the kids don’t already speak English then this is toughest part from the teaching point of view. Of course this would be super, super easy if it was in the local language!)

    If you want to see more, the full guidelines are here:

  17. gumby

    Richard wrote: Actually, anyone fancy doing that for the Genki English curriculum??? Write a story that ties all the lessons together? Each lesson in the curriculum adding a new chapter to the story, like a comic book building up page by page. Now that would be amazing!!

    Now that Richard would be FANTASTIC! ๐Ÿ˜€

  18. Richard

    Just wanting to keep everything together here so we can bounce ideas of each other. Gumby emailed about the gestures, here’s my reply:

    Gumby asked: I think one of the best parts of GE phonics is the gestures. How would you work that into an app?

    Great minds thinking alike – that’s something I’ve been thinking about too! From past experience I don’t think we need any feedback on the gestures – like for example using the camera to see if they are actually doing them! – because most of these kids do the gestures without thinking because they think it’s fun, and actually in the reading section I never tell them to do gestures, but they naturally, almost unconsciously, start doing them when they get stuck.

    I think video would be too memory intensive for the app, but do you think simple 2 frame animations of the gestures would be enough for the kids to figure them out? I could get Alyssa to start working on some.

    One other problem is how to give instructions to the kids, they can’t read yet (!) and we don’t know what their native language is. So I guess we’re going to need some awesome graphic design to let them know when to gesture, when to speak, when to listen etc. etc.! Any ideas anyone?

  19. Chris Cooper

    Richard, I’d be interested in looking at the curriculum and writing some stories to tie the lessons together. I’m doing an MA in TESOL at the minute and I’ve been interested in research based on using stories in class / factors that make stories interesting to learners, that kind of thing.

    The Genki English curriculum is pretty big though, it would be a big project! Maybe it would be cool to see stories from lots of different authors? Even using the same language, it’s a pretty good bet that no 2 people would write the same story.

  20. Richard

    Wow, Chris I think if you gave it a try everyone on here would love you forever! ๐Ÿ™‚

    It should be easy to start with even just the first Adventure lessons ( ) And of course it’s always a possibility to move around some of the themes if it makes things easier.

    And it would be amazing if we had different stories that could be used with different classes but the same lessons. Dinosaurs? Astronauts? Princesses? Monkeys? The environment? Overcoming shyness? Anything really!!

  21. Martin (mjwenzel)

    Yeah, much of what those guidelines look like are what the phonics program at our school is going for.

    First, recognize big and small letters (names and sounds).

    Second, phonetic awareness and blending to make CVC words.

    Third, recognize and memorize common sight words.

    I’ve always treated sight words like you do in Genki Phonics. For me a “sight word” = “funky word” that can’t be easily decoded with “normal” phonetic awareness.

    However, most programs use the Dolch Sight Words. I find it unnecessary to teach some of these words as words requiring memorization because they are decodable.

    “Said” is funky and falls into Sight Word territory. “See” is very decodable and I hate to waste time getting kids into memorize mode for it. There are enough other Sight Words that require memorization due to not following rules (I, the, said, go, no, come, live, give)

    For the primary-level classes, the school uses Hip Hip Hooray! series which promotes “Learning Through Stories”

    Each book contains a story (based on a traditional story, I guess). Each unit then starts with a story section that uses previous English and the new English to be covered in the unit. The kids get it all in story form. Then there are three Learn sections where vocabulary and grammar is taught and practiced. Then another Story section that uses all the language some more and mixes and matches.

    It is a little strange how to do it, though, because the students often are not very good at phonics and reading with the first couple books.

    It would be a great addition to have a story for each topic in Genki…or even better, an over-arching story for the whole curriculum that incorporates and mixes and matches the English (to really help the kids do this part).

    Of course, something like this would really tie teachers into doing the curriculum in a certain order (maybe).

    Great ideas!

  22. Margit

    Stories sounds fantastic.
    Might even be a project to work on with older students who are through the curriculum and can read~to keep them looking into the software and listening to the songs once in a while as a change to their JH text books.

    Now we are far away from the first question, but anyway:
    What lines/rules would stories like this need.

    No worrying about phonetics, I guess (a bit more like the pic books out there already?)

    But staying 100% comprehensive? and building up from there?

    So for example the first one could be only a

    “Stand up”

    and then the next one would follow with
    “Let’s RPS”
    “R>P>S 1, 2, 3…

    and then

    “ah! BTW “(or would this “BTW” be out here):
    “My name is…”
    “My name is …Nice to meet you”
    and so on

    or is this a completely wrong line?

  23. gumby

    It would be great to have stories that extension of the kind GE already has; ie stories that are repetitive and have a punch line.

    The trick would be to combine the themes. For example, using Margit’s idea. you would have 2 people introduce themselves using Hi, my name is.. nice to meet you.. where are you from? could be animals that introduce themselves from a different country than expected and at the end find out they are all wearing different animal costumes etc…

    I think I may be on a different wavelength because I try to stay away from only phonetically chosen words. They never really seem natural and are much harder to understand.

    Going back to the phonics app…

    I think you are right about not having to recognize the gestures. I wonder, too, if it is necessary to have voice recognition. It will be very hard to create something that can distinguish between the โ€˜bโ€™ โ€˜dโ€™ โ€˜pโ€™. it would seem to be an app for a different skill.

    Might it just be better to have something with a lot of input? Part of your phonics has partners sounding off the sounds in pairs. You could do this with the computer saying the sounds of one partner, then switching off. You could have different speeds to challenge the different levels.

    Of all the programs that seem to work my kids, I find that visuals are important. They help keep things comprehensible and keep the interest of the students. GE obviously has mastered a lot on the visual aspect. For the gestures, like you said, it neednโ€™t be videos, though the gestures would have to be clear in the visuals you do to choose to use.

    I still keep coming back to the original GE materials. What would you need to have the GE phonics stand alone, yet still use the methods that work with the GE songs?

  24. Richard

    RE GE Stories: For regular GE, no need to be phonetically regular. We just need a story arc, some point of tension and (eventually) the release of that tension. The key restraint is to only use the English learnt so far. I’m sure Chris is more of an expert on that than I!

    RE Phonics App: The voice recognition is the key part of reading, which is seeing printed material and then sounding it out. The pairs games etc. are phonemic awareness, the input stage like you say, which is something different for before reading. We might need to include that, but the voice recognition is the main part.

    To make the Genki Phonics stand alone, really, ideally, you’d just need them able to speak English, that’s why we have so many homeschoolers and parents using it in the US and UK.

    But …. at the moment Genki Phonics isn’t really very Genki. Apart from the gestures it is pretty straight work, just like regular school. So for the app we do have to think about how to genki it up, without it turning into Genki English of course!

    Does that make sense at all??

  25. Chris Cooper

    RE GE Stories

    One author, Lynne Cameron, in her book Teaching Languages to Young Learners broke down Little Red Riding Hood like this:

    Opening, introduction of characters, setting description, problem introduction, series of events, that lead to resolution of problem, closing (plus a moral, either explicitly or non-explicitly stated)

    She said that if any of these elements were missing, the story probably wouldn’t capture children’s imagination in the same way.

    I think the big challenge is creating a story that has elements that motivate students to want to read on (novelty, conflict, humour, surprise, etc) whilst keeping it at a level they can understand.

    A lot of ESL materials (like stories that have been written for text books) are often criticized for being uninteresting and not very motivating.

    Maybe the students level plus one is a good guideline (I know you mention this in Genki English, Richard).

    In the project I did last year, I looked at introducing vocabulary using stories and found one thing a researcher had described as ‘rich definitions’. Basically helping the students understand words they are unfamiliar with using gestures, synonyms, pointing to pictures, using word in a different sentence or providing a definition in English the students understand.

    I think finding the right balance between being understandable and challenging is the tricky bit, but that probably goes for teaching in general doesn’t it?

    I hope that wasn’t too long and off topic!

  26. Richard

    All good stuff Chris! Every story that has ever been written contains just one of only seven possible plots. And in each of those you have to have the steps you describe there.

    And yes indeed, missing some of these parts is what makes most ESL texts not work.

    The art, the real skill and magic, is in taking these elements and writing a story inside the technical restraint of only have a very small amount of vocab (plus a little bit as you say) available.

    To paraphrase Dr Seuss, anyone can write a story with 1,000 words, but doing it with 200 is where the genius lies. And we’ve got to do it with 8!!!!!

  27. gumby

    ah but why 8? If you use it to combine themes, it really ups the possibilities!

  28. Richard

    Start with 8 for the disco warm up, then add in another 8 (on average) each lesson.

  29. Dacha

    I’ll need to reread all the amazing comments on stories ! To tie in another post of yours – the one about traditional songs -I don’t use any traditional songs really, mostly because “singing isn’t my thing “. I obviously use Genki English songs but I let Richard sing them for me๐Ÿ˜‰! Anyhow I use stories all the time and books. I tell stories but we also play them out ( speaking practice !). Like right now- talking about Thanksgiving – some of my first years play out the Indians and others ” The Piligrims”.”Hello, how are you?” ” I’m hungry ” ( very appropriate for the Piligrims ๐Ÿ˜‰!), “Do you like turkey?” Etc. They also have a great time inventing Indian names ( in French) but then we practice “What’s your name ?”. So even though 8 words at a time restrains us- the possibilities are still endless. It would be great to have caracters from different countries ( as some have already mentioned) because that’s the whole point of Genki English- opening up to others!Or maybe even ( once the story in place) use the videos with different kids playing it out to illustrate ( instead of or with the videos). Anyway- I’m all in for a story! Have a nice day everyone !

  30. Dacha

    Me again : How about a story about someone learning english ? Say he / she/ they have to learn it so that they can travel the world looking for ….( help me out here!!) …. say a treasure. Different caracters help them learn (a sort of “story within a story”). And in the end the treasure turns out to be all the friendships they’ve built. Am I loosing it completely or is there something to it?

  31. Richard

    A school setting certainly is the obvious one, especially for the first few lessons! But there’s got to be a catch about it. Like Baby Monkey going to a superhero school or something a little bit strange somewhere!

  32. Trevor

    I think most teachers now recognise the benefits of both extensive listening and extensive reading.

    A strong phonics program needs a lot of good little phonics stories that build up step by step. More Genki Phonics stories would be great, and probably critical to the app. project.

    Genki English gives amazing aural input. The stories people are talking about would also be a great addition. Another idea is to build on the current stories and future ones by having the basic story, the story chanted and extended version/s of the story. I think this is very effective with EFL students.

    e.g. Current Story – What’s the weather like?
    p.1 Chant – Grandma, Grandma What’s the weather like? It’s sunny. It’s sunny! Cool!
    Extended story – Grandma and Baby Monkey are in the kitchen. “What’s the weather like?” asks Baby Monkey. Grandma looks out the window. “It’s sunny!” she says.

    The chants may not be necessary as GE already has great songs, but the extended stories could be a great way to give the students more input, different grammar patterns and in some cases link together themes. I’m sure many teachers are already telling extended stories or asking question about the pictures, but getting some written could bring out some creative ideas.

  33. Dacha

    Or Baby Monkey landing on a new planet ( sent off with a “Rocket Launch “!:) and having to learn the language!

  34. CJ

    Hi Richard, Hi y’all,
    When I heard about the Global Learning X Prize, the first thing I thought of was Ernesto Sirolli’s TedTalk: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! Watch it if you haven’t already. Anyone putting together a team for the X Prize needs to include people from the areas of Africa where the project will be piloted. That includes kids! Also, literacy experts or better yet teachers in the trenches teaching (struggling) young learners to read in their L1 or L2. Literacy is so much more than the six bullet points included in the guidelines. The importance of oral language development isn’t touched upon. Children’s comprehension of written language depends in large part on their effective use and understanding of oral language. The most successful apps will be the ones that address this.
    Since the test period is 18 months, I think the best strategy might be to teach reading in the children’s native language and simultaneous flood them with oral English. Include lots of stories from their culture told or read aloud and use L1 and visuals to support the learning of English. Once they can read and understand a text in their L1 many of the skills can be transferred to reading in English. I think this would be the best chance they’d have to develop the ability read and understand a text in English.
    What do you all think?
    Richard, if you do put together a team and want someone to research stories from the cultures I’d volunteer.

  35. CJ

    My lessons are also story based which is why I don’t use the GE curriculum, just an occasional song here and there. I’d be up for the challenge of writing a continuing story based on GE if you’d write some songs using the most common English verbs and include those songs early on. It’s hard to write a story, interesting or not, without verbs. Here are the verbs that I teach first and use in my first stories: be, have, do, say, get, make, go, know, take, see, come, think, look, want, give.

  36. gumby

    Ooh Richard, this is too good to pass up. The best advice and book recommendations for early and emergent readers I have received have come from CJ!

  37. Margit

    Interesting points.

    I would love to see a story~and I think we do have most of those verbs in songs:
    How ARE you
    I, you, he, she, …is …
    ARE you…?
    What ARE you doing/I’m…
    and a few more for “be”

    Do you HAVE any pets/brothers or sisters/…for HAVE

    Many “Do you” or “What DO you”…

    Where are you Going?

    “I don’T KNOW” in a few songs

    What can you SEE under the sea?”

    How did you GET here? Though this is not the Get you need, I guess.

    What do you THINK of this

    Happy Halloween “LOOK, there’s a …

    What do you WANT to DO?
    What do you WANT to be?
    and if needed
    What do you WANT for Christmas
    though we usually choose
    What WOULD you like for Christmas.

    Can’t think of any song for
    and say
    yet, but maybe I missed those.

  38. Richard

    Thanks Trevor & Dacha!

    @CJ RE Development: I was thinking the exact same thing. Genki Phonics was born in the classrooms of slum schools in India, in the breaks between workshops where the teachers were having an horrendous time with the current materials. And then of course the kids all wanted different things to what the teachers wanted. ๐Ÿ™‚

    It looks like English “literacy” without necessarily learning English seems to be what the Xprize people are aiming for, which is an aim we see a lot in development work. ( I guess because many tech people see the 3 months to learn a language as the norm, when in reality it isn’t as widespread as it should be.)

    So yes it was a surprise that they decided to go with English, especially with no mention of oral English, which, totally agreed, is the whole foundation for the later reading.

    Personally I have a feeling, but I’m obviously open to seeing some data, that doing local language reading simultaneously with oral English is probably too completely different things. And I know which would be prefered in the communities.

    Actually where are you based CJ? I would absolutely *love* to do a Swahili Genki Phonics, I think that would have the biggest impact of all!

    RE GE Stories: I’d love to hear what you’ve been doing! Over the years I have moved some verb based lessons nearer the beginning (e.g. superhero, be verb) but the very start of the programme is the prime real estate where we have to knock the socks of parents, teachers and the kids with some awesome English they can use straight away, so it’s tough to get the balance!

    Now I think we now have covered all the verbs in your list – although not all near the beginning!

    be = I, you, he, she, we are happy
    have = Do you have any pets?
    do = Do you like food?
    say = How do you say? (This one I really want nearer the beginning but I get a lot of resistance from teachers, not sure how to overcome it!)
    get = We don’t have this yet, what sentences do you use?
    make = Make a Face
    go = Where are you going?
    know = Another one we don’t have!
    take = Winter Clothes (as in “take off”)
    see = What can you see?
    come = How did you get here? (We went with “came” here rather than “come”)
    think = What do you think of?
    look = Look at me!
    want = What do you want to do?
    give = Skeleton soup

    But …. is this begging for a new really easy theme with the the top 8 verbs in one song????? If so, what example sentences would you use for each one?

    Note: Just as a reference that might help anyone else who is reading, the top verbs in English (acccording to the Tim Ferris article above) are (in alphabetical order):


    Interestingly enough these are all in the “I” form.

    P.S. Apologies to everyone for the tangents in the comments, I love it when everyone comes up with so many related ideas – hope you don’t mind!

  39. Martin (mjwenzel)

    I’d love to do the “How do you say…?” song earlier in a curriculum. Probably one of the MOST useful phrases for an English class! I’ve just haven’t gotten around to doing it in any of my classes at my current school.

  40. Richard

    Thanks Gumby and Margit!

    @Martin: Anything we could do to the lesson to make it grab you more?

  41. Martin (mjwenzel)

    Haha, I don’t know. I really just have to look at it again. I actually really like the song (at least the concept). I did it a few times with some of my classes at my old school. Just need to find a good place to do it, haha.

  42. Trevor

    Teachers should welcome kids to their class, make them feel comfortable and then get them to be inquisitive all while using English.

    Therefore :
    What’s you name?
    How are you?
    May I (go to the toilet, sit down).
    How do you say.. in English?

  43. gumby

    Just did the How do you say…? topic with a children’s picture dictionary. It was loads of fun. kids looked up words and made a quiz to ask their classmates.

    Even without the dictionaries, the children love the song and are amazed the pictures in the song are different each time.

  44. Dacha

    This is amazingly interesting!
    CJ would you mind sharing some of your stories- through the Forum maybe? I would love to see them!
    Thank you !

  45. CJ

    @gumby Thanks for your vote of confidence!
    @Margit @Richard Yes, GE does include all the most common verbs but I like the challenge of starting a story (and ideally several stories/graphic novels)in the first lesson or two and adding a page/chapter for each new lesson. The vocabulary in the first three lessons is: stand, up, sit, down, clap, cheer, bow, and, hands, come, on, louder, rock, paper, scissors, 1,2,3, are, you, ready, what’s, your, name, my, is, nice, to, meet. Not much to work with, but maybe not impossible.
    I don’t know where Tim Ferris got his list of verbs. I have seen many over the years. My list is from the Oxford English dictionary. From the Dolch Word List they are: said, was, is, can, had, have, went, be, like, were, go!
    I love these conversations. I have a lot more to say but unfortunately I don’t have the time right now. I’m in France by the way.

  46. Margit

    and at same time Richard for question.

    thanks again CJ. I also remember a few reading sites you recommended me many years ago, and I’m very happy to see your name again. I’m excited to see one of your stories, no matter how short or long.

    Now, Richard, would it have to be the “abc” sequence to build up.
    As we discussed before, it is really not every teacher choosing this sequence anyway, so I think CJ should be free to create any story with structures and words from the curriculum .
    THEN she could add the name of the song.

    What do you think?

    And also thanks to Chris;
    so maybe, Chris would rather go “abc” level wise which would be great too.

    But I think there should be no limitation for the stories, but
    L+1 whatever sequence.

  47. Dacha

    Hello CJ,
    so excited to see that you’re in France!I’ve been hoping to find and get in touch with some Genki teachers over here. Where are you located (I’m just outside Paris)?
    I’ve watched Sirolli’s talk – in so many ways seems like he is talking about teachers as well. So often, we do need to “shut up and listen” as well!

  48. Susan K

    Wow, lots of ideas here!

    These were my first thoughts when I read about this project: Have you ever looked at the Jolly Phonics CD with computer games ( It targets native speakers of English, but could be useful to look at.

    It does seem strange that ‘literacy’ is seen here as being able to read in English. This is more challenging in countries where the western alphabet is not used. On the other hand, the ideal would be for young children to become truly bilingual by seeing and hearing enough English in addition to their native language, so that they can continue to a bilingual school (like the one you visited in Spain).

    ‘Genki Swahili’, I like the sound of that! Perhaps eventually you could work with native speakers to create a literacy app in local languages as well as English.

    The GE characters, the cat, monkey and rabbit families, are endearing to children of all ages and a large part of the communication (empathy, praise..) would be through the facial expressions of these characters and in the tone of voice used on the app. Obviously, the GE motto of ‘losing means try again’ would apply here. Children understand a lot from tone of voice and expression even when they don’t understand the language.

    If there is a different app for each country, then it can be made culturally relevant. An app for older children could even include voiceovers of popular local celebrities saying ‘Great! Well done! Try again! Better luck next time!’ etc. The reading texts could be of simplified topics of interest with pictures/photos. Perhaps there could be a survey among several local schools to find out the interests of different age groups in those countries.

    Adapting GE games to computer games sounds like a fun challenge I’d like to help with. Writing stories with a limited number of words is also something I’d like to think over for the next few days. Maybe my kids could even come up with some suggestions!

  49. Sam

    I second Chris Cooper’s idea and was coming here to suggest something similar. Take most addictive games as model–for example, I’m highly addicted to Candy Crush. The whole reason it’s addictive isn’t because it’s difficult, it’s because the goals are so small and manageable and you have a visible record of your progress. Same thing with Diner Dash. It’s got more story mixed in and the rush of trying to do everything keeps your adrenaline pumping. Instead of crushing candies or helping customers, the students would be identifying the right letters that make the sound or saying the sound.

  50. gumby

    I also think that words like ‘said’ and’went’ can be taught within the context of the book. that is the magic of books. not all words need to be pretaught. these words are self explanatory and so repetitive that books are a great way of acquiring them.

  51. Richard

    @CJ & Margit: All sounds good! As Margit suggests I’m quite happy to change the curriculum order if it makes a difference, it’s a bit of work for everyone, but worth doing if it helps. ALthough of course less work if we could keep it as it is ๐Ÿ™‚

    Tim’s list comes from a corpus of spoken English (not sure which one) which is why I quite like it compared with a written English corpus. But there is plenty of overlap!

    @Susan: Although I love Jolly Phonics in general (and only had problems with the amount of material and things getting lost all the time!) the software didn’t really work for me. It’s like most “educational” software, looking like it was written by software engineers to a brief from the educators, sorting of falling between the two. Which leads to …

    @Sam: …. 100%, I think that’s what they’re getting at, something as addictive using all the game qualities of Candy Crush, Clash of Clans etc. (Star Wars Commander!) but for education. This is what I try to incorporate in GE in general, so adding it to the app is a must! Very expensive to do, but the way to go I think.

    @ Gumby: “Went” works with either phonics or the spoken programme, but of course “said” has to be specifically introduced if it’s in the phonics side of things, being a funky word and all.

  52. Chris Cooper

    @Margit, yes I actually quite like the challenge of writing the stories in order with limited language

    It’s kind of like in Apollo 13, where the people in Houston are trying to build something to save the spaceship (which is in space) and they surround themselves with exactly the same objects/parts available on the ship. I often like to plan lessons like that, surround myself with the resources I have and see how I can put them together to build a good lesson.

    …anyway, I’ve been mulling this over for the last few days, and having aborted a few ideas, I think I can make the Baby Monkey going to Superhero School theme work.

    My idea is to have Baby Monkey overcome shyness across the Adventure model, gaining confidence in the final lesson (the pronouns lesson), after everyone tells him, ‘he can jump’, ‘he can climb’ ‘he is great’, etc.

    I have a couple of questions, do you think overcoming shyness fits the Baby Monkey character? And are there any other GE characters that you think should be included in the story from the start? I guess ‘Superhero’ could be the teacher.

    and yes, @Sam, games has to be the way forward for the app doesn’t it, the only reason I don’t play those Candy Crush style games is because I know how addictive they are, stealing away my precious time!

  53. Susan K

    @Richard, I agree that most educational computer games don’t have as much appeal as those that are made with the aim of just providing entertainment. As a mother of 2 boys, computer games are becoming my area of expertise! ๐Ÿ™‚ I love Forest Temple (Fire Boy and Water Girl), it’s interesting, challenging and has nice graphics and background music. It’s also good for older children. Some games increase childrens’ I.Q. and cognitive, problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination (so I’ve heard, anyway!), which is an extra bonus and would bring children with learning difficulties up-to-speed (used in moderation, of course – they still need to develop their large motor skills).

    A puzzle game like Forest Temple could be adapted for one player with questions to answer before they can collect a diamond or whatever and go on to the next level.

  54. Carma

    Hi Richard,
    This new opportunity is very exciting, and we all seem to agree you are the best candidate for such a project! I love all the creative ideas being generated by the group, I hope you don’t mind if I bring my two cents to the table.
    My first observation is this: they are looking for an app to teach English literacy. They said literacy, but meant English literacy… And if the programme is successful, I imagine their intention would be to have it translated or adapted for other languages. So for simplicity’s sake, keep it English literacy for English speakers. Don’t worry about the foreign language learners – that is an entirely different ballgame.
    Second observation: the audience for this is huge. Moms of 5,6 and 7 year olds in English-speaking households around the world will be eager to have their kids play educational games instead of war games on their tablets, sure… But, because we are targeting the problems of the world, you will have some teenagers, adults, senior citizens; a bit of everything. Keep this in mind in the development stage.
    Third observation: don’t reinvent the wheel. Think of the key aspects of the world’s historically most addictive games, and incorporate these ideas into your app. I have two boys, and there are certain games that they keep going back to. Angry Birds has a lot of great ideas that you could incorporate, and there are so many versions, depending on your personal interests: Angry Birds Seasons, Star Wars, Transformers, etc etc. “Worlds” with a unifying theme and multiple levels. Simple grading system based on achievements: 1, 2 or 3 stars. Once you have a certain number of stars, you can open the next world… Having 3 stars on all of the levels in a world wins you a new tool or character, so you are motivated to keep playing until you have maximised your score. This concept can be translated into English Literacy games. Another hugely successful game was Disney’s Where’s My Water. Again, Worlds with many levels, obviously the levels get increasingly challenging, and there are 3 hidden treasures *somewhere* in each world, you have to keep hunting (playing) until you find those treasures. My boys will keep playing in a world long after having passed it, looking for the hidden treasures. Mario Bros, another popular game. Take the world’s biggest successes and use their addictive powers in your app. Get a running list of addictive qualities, get them in the game. Rewards. Bonus Challenges for extra points, etc etc.
    Final parting thought: you will probably need to team up with a good software development team – you bring the literacy and the ideas, they put it into action. Start looking into this now and figure out what they will need from you. Whether or not you win, you will have an app on your hands – a wonderful tool!
    I hope this was helpful. Go out and win that Prize!
    I’m a superhero! I can WIN! ๐Ÿ™‚
    Take care,

  55. Marina

    Hi! I’ve been reading about this amazing opportunity and all the greats ideas in the comments and just want to say I think this is P E R F E C T for you, Richard! ๐Ÿ˜€

  56. Richard

    @Chris: Yeah, I think Baby monkey could start out shy. Or even better start shy, then get genki in the songs, then revert back to being shy. Slowly but surely beginning to feel more confident in real life, not just in the songs. ??

    No worries about having all the GE characters at the beginning, it’s cool to introduce more later as we go on. One thing though is deciding on the names! ๐Ÿ™‚

  57. Richard

    Thank you Susan & Marina!

    @Carma: Now that is the *perfect* post, you captured my thoughts perfectly!!!

  58. gumby

    Fun stuff about Baby Monkey gaining confidence. I am also for allowing him to be comfortable in his own skin. He still can be quiet, just more confident!

    I like Carma’s idea of the 3 stars. Students can pass on to the next level without having mastery. It would lower the anxiety about having to be perfect, yet like angry birds, students are likely to go back later to try for 3 stars. After completing the series, it would probably seem easier.

    Another thing is allowing for small steps. Students see a portion of the ‘map’. Only when they clear one, do they see the next one. It is not a matter of seeing a huge mountain first and their small steps next.

  59. Dacha

    Hello everyone, it’s really great to see the ideas taking shape through the discussion ! I love Carma’s post- so clear and precise ! I like the idea of Baby Monkey gaining confidence in being who he is, rather than completely transforming into an extrovert! It’s a bit more nuanced but maybe closer to what GE is about?Also it’s interesting that we keep two discussions simultaneously : about a very modern technologue software and an “ancient” but maybe “eternal” storytelling book! And yet both discussions are completely connected !!I’m experimenting with my first years and the idea of Baby Monkey arriving at a new planet! See how that goes! Good Luck everyone!

  60. Susan K

    I think itโ€™s important for learners to get enough input hearing the letter sounds so they can imitate them (after all, native speakers spend the first year of their life mainly listening to the language). They also need enough practice saying the sounds, but to pronounce the sounds accurately it would be better if they could hear themselves. Would it be possible for students to record themselves and hear it played back to them? We sometimes did this on our university language course and it was very helpful.

    I think voice recognition is something that will be developed more in the future, perhaps the programme could give feedback on pronounciation.

    To be sure the child is reading the words and not guessing from a picture, the picture could be shown as confirmation after they had read the word correctly or given after several failed attempts (in order to teach the word). In each case, it would be good for them to hear the word again.

    I’ve noticed that boys love games to do with cars (from racing to designing and buying car parts) while girls like the dress-up dolls and cooking games. I don’t want to discriminate here but I’ve seen very different interests among boys and girls of a similar age. One of my childrens’ favourites at age 4-7 was Shark Bite Bay, along with other Hot Wheels games.

    Did they say this app would be targeted at Sub-Saharan African countries to begin with? Maybe the programme could have an African theme that also has a universal appeal (the colours/design/background music and sound effects etc.) I imagine football would be another popular theme for a game.

    I think children could relate to one or more of the Genki English characters, depending on their individual personalities. They could also develop a ‘rapport’ with the characters the way they do with popular cartoon characters.

    Does the app also target numeracy? If you could develop an addictive Genki Maths game for various ages, this would be very useful! It might make children love maths, too! ๐Ÿ™‚

  61. Sec

    Sorry if this thought seems trivial, but I think a voice record and playback function within the app would be very beneficial for the operator to hear their own voice and be able to compare it with the target sound/word/sentence. This would certainly be helpful with those d,t,p sounds (and a little teasing with the Rs, THs and Vs – I’m writing from Japan).

    Another thought I had was regarding first language and the user’s original level of literacy – which may well be zero. If the user were to see English phonics used in relationship with words in their own language, it could be a good start. I’m racking my brain for an example here……white in Thai could be written cow, kow etc. Just like we all did when we made memos of new words in another language before we could write the script or the standardised “English” version of it. Therefore, the c,k sound and the usage of ow would be covered. Unfortunately the problems begin to pile up with this idea:

    – if literate in their own language and that language uses ABC, the confusion this method could cause!
    – the app would have to be made soooo many times to cater for each language
    – which variety of English to be used e.g American Standard, British RP, Broadest Yorkshire etc.
    – the numerous ways of making the same sound in English – what a pain! But has to be learned. (What’s the technical term for this?)

    And many more cons which I’m sure you can come up with.
    Still, I just wanted to throw this out there – might trigger some genius idea!


  62. Margit

    I think BM is PERFECT being shy~can see him blushing.

    Chris, looking forward!!!

  63. Richard

    Great Comments everyone!

    @Susan K: The listening part, the phonemic awareness, (getting used to the sounds) is essentially separate from literacy i.e. the actual reading of the words. And of course in Genki English we cover the former in the regular curriculum (which has a much bigger advantage over the traditional “cat on a mat” type programmes which are great at phonemic awareness but don’t help much with conversation and the “A a a a apple” type programmes which tend not to work very well at at all ๐Ÿ™‚ ) So I think they are looking here for an app that goes straight into the literacy assuming the phonemic awareness is in place. (Which may of course be naive on their part!)

    Very interesting to hear of your experience with recording your own voice. That wasn’t something I was thinking of as we haven’t had much success with it in the past (very often students think they are getting it right even though to us it sounds totally wrong!) so was favouring the voice recognition aspect. But I’ll certainly have another look!

    Themes wise, all good stuff!! And actually I have a load of Tanzania artwork I commissioned but haven’t used yet!

    Numeracy wise, yes there is a numeracy component but it is such a small part of the prize that I think we’ll leave it for now. The interesting thing for numeracy is that unlike reading where phonics shines heads and shoulders above everything else, there isn’t one stand out way of teaching maths, there are lots of different approaches, but none that dominates the others. So that is another gap that eventually someone needs to fill, a system of teaching maths that works as well as phonics does for reading! ๐Ÿ™‚

  64. Richard

    @Ross: Far from being trivial, these are the most important questions to ask when starting phonics! Let me see if I can help:

    If the user were to see English phonics used in relationship with words in their own language, it could be a good start.

    As you mentioned the disadvantages usually outweigh any advantage, for example the “x” in Chinese, the “R/L” in Japanese or the “v” sound in Spanish. It can be used as a “fast track” option for adults who are literate in their own language but not in English, but in general it just confuses everything, especially accents! ๐Ÿ™‚

    – which variety of English to be used e.g American Standard, British RP, Broadest Yorkshire etc.

    As the different accents come from the vowel sounds, a good phonics programme (like Genki Phonics! ๐Ÿ™‚ ) has the individual sounds coming from the kids (not the teacher nor recorded audio) and always includes a lot more tolerance for the vowels, so luckily this issue resolves itself and you can use phonics anywhere from Dallas to Auckland to Zanzibar!

    – the numerous ways of making the same sound in English โ€“ what a pain! But has to be learned.

    This one is easy too! ๐Ÿ™‚ A good phonics programme will have all this build in and it all works out naturally. The key is to basically teach the readings in the order that they most appear, have a look at the “Alternative Readings” part of Genki Phonics and you’ll see how easy it is! ๐Ÿ™‚

    All good things Ross and it’s always good to remind ourselves just how much work we’ve put into the phonics programme so far *and* how magically it seems the first time you use it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  65. Susan K

    I’ve just looked at the artwork – very nice! African art is so colourful with the sunsets and variety of wildlife.

    By the way, in case you haven’t seen the website there are a wealth of games and ideas on there!

  66. Julie

    Amazing opportunity Richard!
    It’s so obvious that Genki is the method to win this prize! I’m so very excited for you.

  67. Tessa

    If you are planning todo include monkey then why not collecting bananas as rewards, then you could also introduce challenges that convey meaning either for a word ir the correct phonic of a letter
    For understanding you could do different challenges such as finding the tool that monkey will need next, what path should he follow etc.
    Then kids could tarde bananas for prizes ir items to enhance their avatar ir just todo go up the level

  68. Laura

    Hi Richard!
    I’ve just started to use Genki Phonics with my 9 yrs old students.
    They already have some knowledge of English writing as they do it at school but with Genki Phonics they are having much fun!They immediatly ask me the meaning of a word when they don’t know (sip, pit, sat); so sometimes they can easily read but they do not understand the meaning, exactly as you wrote in a previous post.

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