All Children Reading: Sign On For Literacy

Congratulations to our prize winners



Acquisition of a first language is essential for early childhood development and a building block for learning to read. Literacy is linked to all development goals contributing to psycho-social health, employment opportunities, economic growth, and breaking the cycle of poverty.

Globally for children who are deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind (henceforth referred to as ‘Deaf’*), access to and education in a local sign language is often limited or absent. Without access to whole language with frequent and daily input to an accessible and natural language, the foundations of literacy, children are prevented from reaching their full potential. In developing countries and low-resource contexts, literacy outcomes for children who are Deaf are particularly substandard. As such, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development is launching the Sign On For Literacy Prize, which seeks technology-based innovations to increase access to local sign languages and develop literacy interventions for children who are Deaf in low-resource contexts. Winning innovations must be novel, while utilizing technology to make a significant impact upon learning and literacy in the Deaf Community.

*‘Deaf’ is an inclusive umbrella term encompassing people with varying hearing levels, including people who are deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing.


  • Early childhood is the most rapid period of development in human life and evidence suggests that if the brain does not receive appropriate stimulation during this window, it is difficult for the brain to rewire itself later in life.1 Language is an important stimulus during this period.

  • Globally, up to five of every 1000 infants are born deaf or hard of hearing, or have varying hearing levels in early childhood.2
  • Early exposure to sign language and multilingualism, combined with strong family support for sign languages best prepares children who are Deaf for their future effective participation in society.3

  • The United Nations recognizes that full participation in society, facilitated by early exposure to multilingualism including a native sign language, is vital in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030, including the reduction of poverty and income inequality, greater access to quality education, and the promotion of just and inclusive societies.4

  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) recognizes that sign languages are equal in status to spoken languages and should be respected and promoted.5

  • Most children who are Deaf are born to hearing parents and most hearing families are unaware of the importance of sign language learning for their children.3

  • Early access to education in sign language has been proven to greatly increase literacy outcomes in children, both hearing and Deaf.3,6,7 Improved literacy outcomes through inclusive education practices, including the use of sign language, supports progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring quality inclusive education for all children by 2030.4

  • In low-resource contexts, many children’s hearing levels remain unidentified throughout the early language acquisition period and beyond.

  • Often, families of children who are Deaf do not know the local sign language nor are they aware of available resources, if any, to learn the local sign language to communicate with and provide full access to language to their children.

  • Children who are Deaf often have limited access to local sign language, learning resources and Deaf role models.

  • There is a misconception that sign language limits spoken language development in children who are Deaf, and even if sign language resources are available the learning of sign languages is widely discouraged.3

  • Sign languages provide an early foundation for acquiring proficiency of a written/spoken language and achieving academic success.
  • Fewer than 50 countries have legal recognition of a national sign language.8

  • In many countries, the local sign language is not well documented. This inhibits the preservation of the language and those in the community seeking to learn or learn more about the language.

  • In countries where the local sign language is documented, documentation is often limited and there are few educational resources available, with access to them difficult.

The Challenge

Exposure to natural and accessible language at an early age is paramount for early childhood development and promotes cognitive and literacy development. The Sign On For Literacy Prize seeks technology-based innovations to increase access to sign languages and literacy interventions for children who are Deaf in low-resource contexts. These innovations will assist parents, educators, communities, and governments in enhancing early childhood development outcomes, improving access to local sign languages, and increasing literacy outcomes of children who are Deaf. For this prize, a technology-based innovation includes a broad range of information and communication technologies and video media. These can include: hardware, software, Internet and mobile applications among other technologies and platforms.

In some countries, the local sign language may not be documented. This does not mean that a sign language is not used, but rather that there is no dictionary or catalog of signs and/or documentation that enables sign language resources to be created, curated, and distributed to those who want to learn the language.9,10,11 As a supplement to the knowledge transferred by Deaf adults fluent in the local sign language, documentation is a critical first step to enable the creation of resources to provide greater access to sign language for children who are Deaf. In contexts where there is no documented sign language, innovations are sought that, through technology, involve the local Deaf Community as an integral part of efforts to document their language including all signs and sign variations. Solutions must document the local language and not import other widely-used sign languages such as American Sign Language. Solutions that operate in such a context and provide both the capability to document sign language and create resources for learning in that language are encouraged. Solutions should also link sign language learning to the early grade reading resources. Ideally, these resources will be used in the classroom and at home.

Even in countries with a robust and well-documented sign language, many communities still have limited access to sign language resources. Family awareness, educational resources, community engagement, and learning tools are limited or lacking. There is also a challenge in ensuring parents identify their children’s hearing levels at the earliest possible age and a gap in medical practitioners’ knowledge on the importance of sign language learning. To optimize first language and written literacy outcomes for children who are Deaf, they must have access—the earlier the better—to the local sign language, a supportive community with adult Deaf role models, and skilled educators fluent in the local sign language. The more of the aforementioned elements a solution involves (e.g. sign language, adult role models, skilled and fluent educators), the more effective the solution will be in providing an inclusive, holistic, and successful approach to sign language and literacy for children in the community.

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Phases and Prizes

ACR GCD has a competition purse of at least $500,000 USD that will be distributed in three phases. Detailed information regarding Phases 2 and 3 will be released following the completion of Phase 1.

There are three phases to the Sign On For Literacy Prize. The first phase is targeted at identifying novel innovations with the capacity for increasing language and literacy outcomes with significant impact; Phase 1 is the focus of this page. The second phase is aimed at prototyping the innovations, whereas the third phase is focused on refining the prototypes, demonstrating their utility in the field, and ensuring that the appropriate mechanisms, partnerships, and plans are in place for the effective implementation of these solutions. Requirements for Phases 2 and 3 of the competition will be described further after the judging and selection of Phase 1 finalists. 

The ACR GCD partners are open to a range of solutions, including existing technologies, new technologies, or combinations of both. The focus of the competition is on finding technologies that enable the creation of resources to improve access to, and education in, local sign language for children who are Deaf in low-resource settings. Innovations should increase language and reading skills, be cost effective for developing country contexts, and have the potential for scale. ACR GCD recognizes that in some settings there is no documented sign language, and to create such resources, language documentation is necessary. As such, solutions that use technology for this crucial first step of documentation then linking sign language to literacy resources will also be considered for awards.

Phase 1: Written Proposal and Project Plan

  • The first phase requires a written description in English of the proposed innovation and project plan explaining the methods, resources, potential technology platform(s), personnel, existing partnerships (if any), evidence of collaboration with the local Deaf Community in product design and implementation, and preliminary schedule to implement the proposed innovation. In this phase, Solvers are not expected to possess the expertise, experience, or partnerships necessary for successful implementation of their proposed innovation, but they are required to describe any potential limitations and identify the type of partners needed. Solvers are encouraged to supplement their submission with a video describing their concept and vision for the proposed innovation (see details in Submission Question 10).

  • There is a pool of $125,000 USD to reward up to the five most promising innovations with $25,000 USD each.

  • Submissions will be evaluated by a team of expert reviewers, using the Judging Criteria.

  • Solvers may be required to provide additional information on their submission to the judging panel after the deadline.

  • By submitting, you are providing ACR GCD with a non-exclusive license to use any information contained in your submission (excluding personal identifying information), irrespective of whether your submission receives an award. Notwithstanding this license, the Solver will retain ownership of any innovation. Please see the Terms and Conditions for further information.

Phase 2: Prototype Development of the Innovation

  • Phase 1 awardees will be given approximately three months to adapt their innovations for demonstration to the ACR GCD partners. During this time period, Solvers must be willing to work with the ACR GCD partners and other collaborative organizations (e.g. the national member, or Ordinary Member of WFD, if available). Mentors will work closely with Solvers to incorporate language and literacy outcomes assessments within the innovation. The development period will be determined following review of the proposals and in-depth discussions with the semi-finalists to identify a reasonable timeline.

  • The demonstration will be conducted virtually through a video web conference. If this is not possible or sufficient, alternative avenues will be considered. The demonstration must show how the innovation will address potential technology challenges when used in a low-resource context.

  • Up to the top three prototypes will each receive an award of no less than $75,000 USD and will be advanced to Phase 3.

Phase 3: Prototype Refinement and Field Test Demonstration of the Innovation

  • The anticipated duration of Phase 3 is three months. Finalists will refine their winning Phase 2 prototype and field test their innovations in a low-resource setting. ACR GCD partners are committed to researching the impact upon language and literacy outcomes, thus studies will be conducted during the piloting of the prototype and followed more extensively upon the anticipated roll-out of the innovation.

  • The highest scoring innovation in this phase will be awarded no less than $75,000 USD and up to a maximum of $150,000 USD, unless no submission meets all of the criteria.


Challenge Timeline table featuring 3 phases with dates and target item deadlines for each date.
Phase 1 November 8, 2017 Launch
February 16, 2018 Phase 1 deadline
  March 30, 2018 Phase 1 selection
Phase 2 April 2018 Phase 2 launch
July 2018 Phase 2 deadline
July 2018 Phase 2 selection
Phase 3 August 2018 Phase 3 launch
November 2018 Phase 3 deadline
January 2019 Winners announced

* These dates are approximate only.

Submissions Closed

The full Challenge document is available for download here.

Open Question Period

Please submit competition questions to  Answers will be shared publicly here on a rolling basis, but no later than two weeks after submission. Questions will be accepted through January 31, 2018. 

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  1. UNICEF Paper on Early Childhood Development: The key to a full and productive life.
  2. World Health Organization facts on deafness.
  3. WFD Position paper on the Language Rights of Deaf Children.World Federation of the Deaf. September 2016.
  4. General Assembly Resolution 70/1, Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, A/Res/70/1. United Nations. 25 September 2015.
  5. United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 21(e) Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information.
  6. Kushalnagar, P, et. al., Infants and Children with Hearing Loss Need Early Language Access.The Journal of Clinical Ethics. Summer 2010; 21(2): 143-154.
  7. Scott JA and Hoffmeister RJ, American Sign Language and Academic English: Factors Influencing the Reading of Bilingual Secondary School Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students.Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. January 2017; 22(1): 59-71.
  8. Haualand H and Allen C, Deaf People and Human RightsWorld Federation of the Deaf and Swedish National Association of the Deaf. January 2009.
  9. WFD Statement on Sign Language Work.World Federation of the Deaf. February 2014.
  10. WFD Statement on Standardized Sign LanguageWorld Federation of the Deaf. May 2014.
  11. Working Together, Manual for Sign Language Work within Development Cooperation.  Finnish Association of the Deaf and World Federation of the Deaf, July 2015.


About All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development

All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD), established in 2011 as a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), World Vision and the Australian Government, is an ongoing series of competitions that leverages science and technology to source, test, and disseminate scalable solutions to improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries. The global initiative focuses on sourcing, accelerating, and measuring the impact of technology-based innovations with the potential to transform the learning process and classroom experience at an individual, community, and national level. For the Sign On For Literacy Prize, ACR GCD is collaborating with the World Federation of the Deaf, the Nyle DiMarco Foundation and Deaf Child Worldwide.

 Sign on for literacy partner logos: ACR GCD, USAID, WorldVision, Australian Aid, World Federation of the Deaf, Nyle Dimarco Foundation, and Deaf Child Worldwide