Unesco: Mobile phones are causing a "reading revolution" in poor countries

In the past, access to reading materials meant access to books, but the global spread of inexpensive mobiles is offering new ways to read

When we think of the fight against illiteracy we might imagine old-fashioned chalk boards or large print books, but a recent report from Unesco suggests that a new technology is fuelling a “reading revolution” in poorer countries: the mobile phone.

“While mobile phones are still used primarily for basic communication, they are also – and increasingly – a gateway to long-form text,” reads the report.

“For a fraction of the cost of a physical book, it is often possible to access the same book via a mobile device. And this capacity is not restricted to smartphones.”

The new survey – the largest ever undertaken on mobile reading in the developing world – surveyed the habits of more than 4,000 mobile users in seven countries; Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. The average illiteracy rate among these nations is 20 per cent for children and 34 per cent for adults (average adult illiteracy in the UK is less than 1 per cent).

“We now have two years of data proving that people are spending hundreds of hours a month reading short and long form text, using basic feature and Android phones,” said Elizabeth Hensick Wood, a director at Worldreader, a non-profit that promotes reading in developing countries and sponsored the study.

“We interviewed dozens of individuals, ranging from students to teachers to parents, and all told a similar story: they do not have access to paper books, they are thrilled to now have thousands of free books on their mobile phones and they are now reading more than ever.”

Recent data from the United Nations shows that of the roughly seven billion people on the planet, more than six billion now have access to a mobile – more than have access to toilets and toothbrushes.

The study highlighted the positive effect of mobile reading on females. Although the majority of mobile readers where male, when women and girls had access they read up to six times more than men and boys.

The Worldreader app offers access to many free texts even on feature phones; with data compression keeping the costs of access down.

"Simply put, once women are exposed to mobile reading, they tend to do it a lot," read the report, highlighting also the importance of female access to reading. Of the 770 million illiterate adults on the planet nearly two-thirds are women, and in many poor countries there remains a stigma against female education.

The report suggests that in some contexts the ubiquity and social acceptability of mobile phones gives women and girls a chance to access reading materials – such as romance novels or texts about sexual health – that they might be barred from in book form.

 Statistics from Worldreader showed that the most popular genre on its mobile app (which compresses data so that access to 300 page novel costs less than a cent) is romance followed by religion, with books popularly searched for including Harry Potter, Romeo and Juliet and Animal Farm.

The study also found that despite their expectations, the most commonly perceived barrier to mobile reading was a lack of relevant books – not the cost of access – meaning that encouraging further reading can be addressed by simply offering more content.

The researchers from Unesco and WorldReader also stressed the relevance of the Matthew Effect when it came to reading. This sociological concept (which is named after a portion of text from the Gospel of Matthew) can be simply translated as “those who have get more; those who don’t, get less”.

This somewhat blunt observation holds true for a lot of economic inequality, but for education it’s especially relevant. The more often people read the better readers they become, and the better readers they become the more successful they are in school – benefits that continue to snowball through a person’s life.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own