April 25, 2014

UNESCO study points to a “revolution in reading” in developing countries, thanks to mobile devices


A major new UNESCO study shows that smart phones can significantly help the cause of global literacy. Image via Worldreader

A major new UNESCO study shows that smart phones can significantly help the cause of global literacy. Image via Worldreader

For their study, “Reading in the Mobile Era,” UNESCO conducted surveys in seven developing countries and found that mobile devices can be an important factor in fostering literacy around the world: “Mobile devices  can advance literacy and learning in underserved communities around the world.” UNESCO estimates that 774 million adults and 123 million children around the world can’t read or write, and this is often attributable to a simple “inability to access text.” That’s changing, though, as UNESCO found that the popularity of basic mobile phones is providing affordable and engaging resources .

Survey results came in from more than 4,000 people in Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, and UNESCO also interviewed a number of the respondents. In the most extensive study of its kind, UNESCO found that people enjoying reading more when they read on mobile devices, and do more of it, and they often use mobile devices to read books and stories to children.

These are hopeful findings for worldwide literacy. UNESCO cites their seven key findings:

1. Mobile reading opens up new pathways to literacy for marginalized groups, particularly women and girls, and others who may not have access to paper books.
2. People use mobile devices to read to children, thereby supporting literacy acquisition and other forms of learning.
3. People seem to enjoy reading more and read more often when they use mobile devices to access text.
4. People read on mobile devices for identifiable reasons that can be promoted to encourage mobile reading.
5. Most mobile readers are young, yet people of various ages are capable of using mobile technology to access long-form reading material. More can be done to encourage older people to use technology as a portal to text.
6. Current mobile readers tend to have completed more schooling than is typical.
7. There appears to be a demand for mobile reading platforms with text in local languages, level-appropriate text and text
written by local authors.

As for what people are reading on their devices, it’s mostly romance and religion. From The Guardian:

The most popular genre for readers was romance, the survey found, with the “romance” icon on Worldreader Mobile receiving 17% of all 730,787 clicks during the research period. Nineteen of the top 40 books read during the study period were romance novels, with Ravinder Singh’s Can Love Happen Twice? the most popular book, followed by the Mills & Boon title The Price of Royal Duty in second, and the Bible in third.

Kwame Nkrumah’s The Great African and Nnedi Okorafor’s The Girl with the Magic Hands were also among the most read books between April and June 2013, with the most popular search terms over the period “sex”, “Bible” and “biology”. Chinua Achebe came in fourth, with “Things fall apart”, ahead of “love” in fifth. Religion was the second most popular genre, said Unesco.

The study was conducted with WorldReader, a non-profit “on a mission to eradicate illiteracy by delivering a library of e-books to people in low income countries,” as well as Nokia, and the results shouldn’t be underestimated.

There are strong indications that the benefits of mobile reading are long-lasting and far-reaching, with the potential to improve literacy, increase education opportunities and change people’s lives for the better. A revolution in reading is upon us thanks to the massive proliferation of mobile technology, and future research should aim to evaluate, improve and facilitate this revolution as it unfolds.

You can read the whole UNESCO report here, and learn more about Worldreader here.


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.