The phone-led revolution paving the way to the end of illiteracy

Harriet Green
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Illiteracy is a big problem in many of the world’s developing countries.

And even if you can read and write, to be able to read regularly, you need access to books and money to pay for those books.

In Japan, where 99 per cent of people can read, there is one library for every 47,000 people. In Nigeria, it’s one to every 1.35m.

Combating illiteracy with a dearth of reading material is a near-impossible task, but now there’s a new way forward - and it’s mobile phones that are starting to show how.

According to a new report from Unesco, which looks at the reading habits of well over 4,000 mobile users across seven countries - Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe - books are now more accessible than ever, via mobile phones.

Average illiteracy rate among children is 20 per cent, and 34 per cent among adults in the countries studied. 774m adults worldwide (those over 15 years old) still can’t read and write.

Unesco stresses that proximity and access to books doesn’t in and of itself promote literacy - material’s no good if you haven’t been taught to read. But, of course, without access, illiteracy is guaranteed.

What the proliferation of mobile use means, says the charity, is that a “revolution in reading is upon us” - the technology is one tool in an arsenal of others “that can help people develop, sustain and enhance their literacy skills.”

The survey found that people are reading more - and that’s true for women, too, despite male readers outnumbering them three to one. In fact, women who read on their phones spent an average of 207 minutes per month reading, compared to men’s 33 minutes.

One in three respondents said they’re reading to their children from their phones, with another third saying they would if more appropriate material was available.

Readers are also keen for more material, spanning genres. Romance is the most popular, followed by educational and religious texts.

The people surveyed use an app from Worldreader - a not-for-profit based in San Francisco that circulates e-books in low-income countries.

Worldreader has 6,000 books to offer readers, delivering Kindles to under-equipped classrooms. Since launching in 2010, it’s distributed almost 1.7m e-books, most of which are free.

Unesco's found that most mobile readers have read more since adopting mobile reading, with 62 per cent of respondents reading once able to read on their phones.

The UN International Telecommunication Union estimates that, out of the 7bn people on Earth, 6bn have access to a working mobile phone, so the potential is huge.

Lead author Mark West said, speaking to the UN: “This report calls attention to what is currently an underutilized potential – this is a cost-effective vehicle to improve education.”