Editor’s Note: A version of this post first appeared on Unreasonable.is.
By Cecily Mauran
Literacy in Brazil is a major problem. Of the 28 million students enrolled, 50 percent scored below the basic proficiency level in the 2012 PISA international assessment tests. According to the Instituto Paulo Montenegro, 27 percent of Brazilian adults are functionally illiterate.
Text comprehension is vital to literacy because it enables readers to engage with information and acquire new knowledge. When Danielle Brants realized that text comprehension, or lack thereof, was a major contributor to the performance gap amongst students, she decided to act.
“Instead of just looking at the numbers, I decided to see this as an opportunity to turn it into an impactful social business,” Brants recalled.
Brants was an investment banker in corporate finance when she realized she wanted to make a better contribution to Brazil’s future. “Why couldn’t I invest all my energy in a sector like education that desperately needs an injection of human capital and innovation?”
In 2014, she quit her job and founded Guten, an interactive reading platform for elementary students designed to improve engagement and reading comprehension. In Brants’ words, Guten’s mission is to “foster reading proficiency and engagement for Brazilian students, creating a new generation of readers.”
And the key to helping students become great readers is Guten’s bespoke technology. The program gamifies content like news stories and current events. Guten then captures each child’s reading level and sends weekly assessments to his or her teacher. The assessments inform teachers of the students’ “major comprehension skills, such as making inferences, distinguishing facts from opinions and detecting the theme of a text.”
In addition to providing a tool for building reading proficiency, the inclusion of news and current events informs students about their own culture.
“Guten brought the world into our school and enabled our students to amplify their cultural background while playing reading games that stimulate and engage them,” said Angélica Xavier, a 5th grade teacher who uses Guten with her students.
Students like using Guten so much that they even created a verb in Portuguese to describe the act of reading with the program (much like the now-ubiquitous term ‘Googling’). Teachers announce that “it’s time to ‘gutar,’” or students might say “I am ‘gutando,’” and so on. Brants even claims that students continue reading and playing with Guten when they get home.
To date, 25,000 students across 70 schools use Guten. In 2015, Brants was named one of the “10 Innovators Under 35” by the MIT Technology Review. She said Guten has also signed a cooperation agreement with the University of Sao Paulo “to co-develop scientific research capabilities in natural language processing and machine learning applied to literacy.”
While these milestones are encouraging, there is still much more work to be done. Brants and her team are focusing on reaching the most at-risk students — which, coincidentally, is also the hardest student demographic to reach. Their strategy is to partner with state agencies so that “students with the biggest achievement gaps will be able to benefit from the product and its learning outcomes.”
Guten is still an early-stage company, but Brants and her team are confident their technology is the key to scaling reading mastery among students. With its ability to customize to every student’s reading level, Guten democratizes reading mastery — allowing children to take a proactive role in society.
Images courtesy of Guten
Cecily Mauran is an Associate Editor for UNREASONABLE.is. She is an entrepreneur, writer, photographer, dog lover, outdoors enthusiast, and hot sauce connoisseur. She believes in entrepreneurship as a tool for social impact.