Oh, the places they’ll go!


In order for poverty to be eradicated, communities to thrive, and global public health to be improved, universal literacy must be nurtured. To become literate, children need to practise reading. To practise reading, they need books. And to get books, they need a complex distributional and financial network sourcing age- and culture-appropriate books, paying for them, and delivering them to where the children live. For children living in developing countries, especially in remote areas, this doesn’t bode well for improving literacy skills. According to UNESCO, a study of 16 sub-Saharan countries showed that most primary schools have few or no books, with up to ten or even twenty children sharing a single textbook.

Just distributing books to these children can have a dramatic impact on literacy rates, but Foundation Beyond Belief’s Q2 Education beneficiary, Worldreader, has a better idea, and it’s one that is backed up by a remarkable amount of research: rather than engage in the heavy lifting required to get the distribution of physical books off the ground, their programs harness the growing presence of mobile devices across Africa to distribute e-books.

This methodology has a number of advantages, the most obvious of which is the ease of distribution, but there are other perks, too. Many of the e-books distributed by Worldreader are written by local authors, helping the children to improve their engagement with the books, and also to improve their literacy in their native languages. The increasing presence of electronic devices – especially e-readers – also provides an opportunity for local infrastructure and capacity development, with Worldreader training local technicians in repair skills, and offering technical and pedagogical training to local teachers and project managers.

Although smartphones have yet to reach the levels of penetration in Africa that they have in the first world, the use of basic phones and feature phones is increasing quickly and dramatically. In 2012, there were 3 mobile phone subscriptions for every 4 people in Africa, with rapid growth estimated at 17% per year. Although actual individual phone ownership is likely to lag slightly behind this figure, with some people having multiple subscriptions, the availability of relatively low-cost devices is soaring, and having a dramatic impact on access to information. According to a UNESCO report, Reading in the mobile era: A study of mobile reading in developing countries, even “basic mobile phones offer a new, affordable and easy-to-use portal to reading material”, and with more than 6 billion of the 7 billion people worldwide having access to a mobile phone, mobile devices are “the most ubiquitous information and communication technology in history.”

UNESCO’s research, conducted using the Worldreader mobile application, indicates that the potential for reading on mobile devices is tremendously powerful. People who have access to reading material on mobile devices read more than those who don’t, read stories to children, and enjoy reading more. Worldreader’s own research indicates that the 13,596 children across nine African countries with access to Worldreader’s library of 944,300 e-books have a significant advantage compared to those who don’t yet have such widespread access to books. They have better reading fluency and listening comprehension, a reduced gender gap in reading skills, and improved English reading skills. The mobile app (you can see how it works on feature phones here) opens up the possibilities of increased access to books to anyone with a mobile.

Although access to literature own its own is not sufficient – it clearly needs to be combined with all the social support needed to develop literacy, including trained teachers, basic health practices that keep children healthy enough to stay in school, and a reduced need for children to contribute economically to their families – the “primacy of access cannot be overstated”, says UNESCO. Books alone will not solve the problem, but they are an indisputably vital component of solving the overall problem. Without access to books, there is no hope for improving literacy. With access to books, the first stepping stone is in place.

Worldreader’s work primarily addresses the goal of Millennium Development Goal 2 (achieve universal primary education). To learn more about Worldreader’s projects, visit their website, or catch up with them on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, or their blog.