Mobile technology boosts literacy

According to a new UN study, mobile phones are causing a reading revolution in developing countries, Anna Bevan reports

A year-long study by world heritage organisation UNESCO found that adults and children in the developing world are increasingly reading multiple books and stories on their phones. In the past, access to reading materials meant buying books, which were often expensive and in scarce supply. However, a rise in low-cost mobile phones means that people all over the world can now access text.

“Mobile technology delivers education to those who have previously had little or no access to such resources. In areas where books cannot be distributed or where there has been political instability, mobile-learning is a way of overcoming these obstacles,” said Jordan Kay, of the World Literacy Foundation.

According to UNESCO, in Zimbabwe the cost of reading a book on a mobile is about 35p while a paperback bestseller would cost around $12 (£7).

The study, which was the largest ever conducted on mobile reading in the developing world, was conducted in partnership with Worldreader, a non-profit organisation that seeks to eradicate illiteracy in low-income countries. Data was collected from devices that use its Worldreader Mobile app, which allows people to access reading material on their mobiles.

Nearly 5,000 mobile users were surveyed in seven countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe). The average illiteracy rate among these nations is 20% for children and 34% for adults. Average adult illiteracy in the UK is less than 1%.

Results showed that 62% of respondents read more now that they can access materials on mobiles. One in three said they read to their children from their mobiles and 90% said they would be spending more time reading on their phones over the coming year.

UN data says more than six billion people now have access to a working mobile phone.

“As we see further technological development and an increased reduction in the price of data and smartphones, there will be greater access to this type of technology in the developing world,” said Kay.

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