A book library on your phone

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This month, a new library of cellphone stories — also known as mobile novels or m-novels — will be launched by the Shuttleworth Foundation as part of its m4Lit (mobiles for literacy) project.

Yoza is the name of the m-novel library, kicking off with two new titles in the soccer and teen chick-lit genres, as well as its flagship title Kontax. Yoza is available on www.yoza.mobi and also on MXit.

The m4Lit project began in 2009 to test whether teens in South Africa would read stories on their cellphones. Most of the reading and writing that happens on cellphones is short, for instance, SMSes and chat messages on MXit. We published a story called Kontax — 20 pages in length — and actively invited reader participation.

Readers could leave comments on chapters, vote in opinion polls related to the story and enter a writing competition.
The uptake was tremendous. By the end of May, another Kontax story was published. In seven months, the two stories had been read more than 34 000 times on cellphones. More than 4 000 entries had been received in the writing competitions and over 4 000 comments had been left by readers on individual chapters. Many of our readers asked for more stories and in different genres. Encouraged by the high readership of the stories, we decided to launch Yoza.

Yoza has a new Kontax episode — in the teen adventure genre — as well as a soccer story and a teen chick-lit title. An HIV/Aids story series is in the pipeline. Yoza will also have a classics section in which public-domain titles such as Macbeth will be published.

Current story languages include English and isiXhosa, and we would like to publish stories in more languages.

We want m-novels published on Yoza to be compelling, entertaining reading for teens. The stories are written in conventional language; "txtspeak" is used only when a character is writing or reading SMSes or instant message chats. Enjoying stories with good language is part of the Yoza experience.

Yoza is also about openness. We want as many people as possible to read, enjoy and share our stories. For this reason, stories are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike licence. This means anyone can freely copy, distribute, display and remix the content, as long as they credit the original and subsequent authors.

It is worth talking about two objections we often hear about teens, cellphones and language. Firstly, that teens don't read books because they are always on their phones (which Yoza will only encourage more) and, secondly, that texting is destroying good language.

In response, I always say we want young people to read and write: if they are doing it on their cellphones and not on paper, then the result is still achieved. We do not want to see the death of books. Books are durable (you don’t need a battery to read them and they last for many years), tough (they still "work" if you drop them) and timeless in many ways. But books are also scarce and prohibitively expensive for most South Africans.

Equal Education is trying to solve this problem through its One School, One Library, One Librarian campaign. This is a worthy campaign that must have our full support, but it is a struggle that is not going to be won overnight — and, without libraries, our youth can't access books.

In the "book-poor" but "cellphone-rich" context of South Africa, indeed of Africa, the phone is a viable complement, and sometimes alternative, to a printed book. If we want our youth to read, we need both printed books and books on cellphones. We need to move beyond the paper versus pixels debate and focus on reading and 

writing — whatever the medium.


In a piece I wrote for theTeacher last year titled "Txt savvy 4 2morrow", the texting issue is addressed. Yes, there are legitimate concerns about "txtspeak" creeping into school assignments and even job applications — this is not a good thing at all. It is essential to teach learners to know which writing style to use for different occasions.


On the upside, research in the United Kingdom has shown that texting actually supports literacy because the writing is economical, playful and inventive. It also develops phonological awareness.The key point is texting is not going to go away because cellphones are not going to go away. The only way to tackle this issue is to teach about writing for an audience.


The first two Kontax stories clearly demonstrated that cellphones are a viable platform for teen reading and writing. With Yoza, our goal is to build a mobile library of stories of multiple genres and in multiple languages that is available to teens not only in South Africa, but ultimately also throughout Africa. We are considering localising and publishing some of the stories in Kenya as a start. For the foreseeable future, the cellphone, not the Kindle or iPad, is the market leader in Africa. We will exploit that to improve Africa's literacy levels. How you can get involved:


Encourage your learners to read the stories, write comments and story reviews and enter the writing competitions. We have partnered with READ Educational Trust and are giving away prizes for the best story comments in August. This is part of the 2010 Readathon event.


Bring Yoza into the classroom by using one of the stories as prescribed reading and have learners write assignments on it.


Write a story for Yoza, or encourage your learners to submit a story. If we like it, we'll publish it.


Translate Yoza stories into other languages. If you translate a story, we'll publish it.


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