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Study Shows Effectiveness of Mobile Phones in Promoting Reading and Literacy in Developing Countries


A UNESCO study published 23 April, on the occasion of World Book and Copyright Day explains how mobile technology is used to facilitate reading and improve literacy in developing countries.

The report, Reading in the Mobile Era, highlights that hundreds of thousands of people currently use mobile technology as a portal to text. Findings show that in countries where illiteracy rates are high and physical text is scarce, large numbers of people read full-length books and stories on rudimentary small screen devices.

Worldwide 774 million people, including 123 million youth cannot read or write and illiteracy can often be traced to the lack of books. Most people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not own a single book, and schools in this region rarely provide textbooks to learners.

The report cites data showing that where books are scarce, mobile technology is increasingly common, even in areas of extreme poverty. The International Telecommunication Union estimates that of the 7 billion people on Earth, 6 billion have access to a working mobile phone.

This study of mobile reading was conducted in seven developing countries, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Drawing on the analysis of over 4,000 surveys and corresponding qualitative interviews, the study found that:

  • large numbers of people (one third of respondents) read stories to children from mobile phones;
  • females read far more on mobile devices than males, almost six times as much;
  • both men and women read more cumulatively when they start reading on a mobile device;
  • many neo- and semi-literate people use their mobile phones to search for text that is appropriate to their reading ability.

Dr Han Ei Chew from UNU-WIDER, one of the two authors of the report, pointed out one of the unexpected findings of the study: the cost of airtime was of least concern to the respondents and only 18 per cent of them claimed to worry about using their airtime when reading. In contrast, 60 per cent of the respondents were concerned about the limited reading content available which points to the need to make more digital content available on mobile devices.

The study is intended as a roadmap for governments, organizations and individuals who wish to use mobile technology to help spread reading and literacy. The report recommends improving the diversity of mobile reading content to appeal to specific target groups such as parents and teachers; initiating outreach and trainings to help people transform mobile phones into portals to reading material; and lowering costs and technology barriers to mobile reading.

The principal author of the report is Mark West of UNESCO. Dr Han Ei Chew (chew [at] wider.unu.edu) co-authored the report.

Further reading:

Cell phones could help millions in developing countries to read

'Mobile Reading revolution' takes off in developing world

Cell phones ignite a 'reading revolution' in poor countries

Could mobile phones save millions from illiteracy?

How mobile devices drive literacy in developing world

World Book Day: new UN report spotlights potential of mobile technology to advance literacy

Mobile devices can dramatically improve literacy rates in developing countries, says UNESCO

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