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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.