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8 Lessons in amplifying literacy with technology

In March, we celebrate National Reading Month! Needless to say, it’s one of my favorite months of the year.

I grew up surrounded by and loving books. I can’t remember a time in my life in which I didn’t consider myself a reader. My YouTube subscription list is filled with booktube channels that recommend new and exciting reads every day. I follow book blogs and I am part of an online book club. A lot of my favorite authors are on Instagram. Plus, books count as friends, right?

At the same time, teachers often feel as if they’re competing with technology for the attention of students. The presence of devices and apps in their students’ lives seems to be in the way of instilling a habit of reading.

This is often baffling to me. As an avid member of the online book community, I can’t thank it enough for helping me read more diversely, more deeply and even for making bookish friends. I still keep a screenshot of that one time my favorite author replied to my email.

However, I can see how technology can be both a distractor and a positive factor. Which gave me an idea to celebrate this month by making a case for the latter...

Making the case for amplifying literacy with technology

Technology isn’t going anywhere. The idea of using technology for improving literacy raises a daring question:

What if we stop fighting it and start putting it to good use?

What if instead of banning devices or lamenting students’ preference for video, we teach them to use them for educational purposes?

Much like how booktubers reach a wide audience of book lovers, technology can be used to reach goals such as:

  • Teaching digital literacy - as digital literacy supports traditional literacies as well as bringing novel methods to the classroom such as chat or forums.
  • Learning how to create stories - becoming good digital storytellers vastly improves reading comprehension. Knowing how to create a story helps students learn better and make deeper connections between complex concepts.
  • Motivating students to read and write - they already like using technology and multimedia storytelling. The things that change are the content and the fact that they turn from consumers of content into creators.

Technology also enables community-building inside your school or classroom. The community aspect is a powerful strategy that can influence students to read more, through the power of example. To put it simply, if it’s cool to read, even the most reluctant readers will want to participate somehow.

That’s why you need to look no further than the online book community. Here are eight ways in which they engage millions of readers and which you can easily “steal” for your classroom or school:

  1. Have a dedicated space for discussing reading

    To make the process a lot easier, technology helps you foster a love for reading inside and outside the classroom. The classic option is creating a blog, where students contribute with their own book reviews. Some teachers might opt for using social media, posting frequent updates on Twitter, or uploading student reviews of books on Youtube. There’s also the possibility of getting into Bookstagram, which is Instagram’s own response to this trend.

    However, if you’re not into the idea of social media, Youtube, or a public blog, you can use a simple library of items that students can have access to such as Google Drive, or something more advanced such as your school’s learning management system. The latter also has chat and online forums where students interact safely. An LMS that has a blogging feature can be a game-changer since students can write blog posts that are visible only to their teachers and colleagues. To make this easier, create a new class for discussing books, or incorporate this into an existing class.

  2. Video reviews and trailers

    Making your own video review takes a lot of hard work; actually, students have to work harder than writing a book report. They get to read the book, write a script in which they formulate ideas in a logical way, then give a presentation in front of a camera. They can also recommend further reads based on what other students might like and it’s a great way to get and give feedback.

    For inspiration, there are many book review channels out there hosted by children their age. Or, take for example this K-12 school in the UK whose students are avid readers and reviewers.

    However, it doesn’t mean that your students will just be talking to a camera by themselves. With some help, they can create book trailers, a popular way for them to engage more with the themes of a story and work as a team. Book trailers require more editing, but you can use cheap methods such as the green screen to make books come alive in their imaginations.

    Read more: Green light for using green screen in classroom activities

  3. Retellings and pairing books with movies

    The idea of pairing books and movies is nothing new but it’s still a great way to actually increase comprehension - as they debate the differences and similarities between the two mediums, they get to reflect on the benefits and minuses of each, plus their own understanding of the text.

    As someone whose guilty pleasure is rewatching 10 Things I hate about you and Clueless, I can say that retellings, both for small students and older ones are fun and can spark interesting conversations about originality, inspiration and the ways in which we like to retell stories over and over again.

    Interesting things can happen when students reimagine classics in their own context, such as discussing what it would be like to have a character as a friend or what they would do if tomorrow they would find themselves in the book they are reading. Whether they debate this online or offline, questions that they can relate to their own lives are amazing conversation starters.

  4. Introducing audiobooks and ebooks

    This might seem controversial as even the larger book community people are debating whether or not listening to audiobooks counts as reading, with compelling pro and against arguments. But this is not about what is better, sometimes it’s about what is more convenient.

    Take for example my own year-long experiment on reading digital books. The results? I read a total of 61 books in 2019, of which at least half were in a digital format. In 2018, I only managed 29. It was just easier to read on my phone and e-reader on public transportation and while waiting in line at the supermarket.

    But don’t quote me on this one. It seems that children prefer ebooks for the sake of familiarity. If you have students that struggle to read or simply need an extra incentive in their environment to do so, then audiobooks and ebooks can be a good place to start or simply get in the habit of reading. It just shows that reading is as accessible an option as playing games or watching videos on your phone.

  5. Organizing read-alongs

    This is probably the coolest tip that you can borrow from the online book community. Similarly to a book club, read-alongs are fun ways in which people discuss a text in an online forum, group, or via chat. If this seems challenging, students can read books in smaller groups or in pairs.

    The main point is for them to share ideas as they read and increase their understanding of a text by reflecting on what they’ve just read. You can guide students to discuss a book chapter by chapter or intervene with questions if discussions get a bit stale. Alternatively, more advanced readers can help others understand and extract the main ideas from a text by offering help or encouragement along the way.

  6. Reading challenges

    Mandatory reading comes more naturally for more advanced readers. For others, however, it can feel like a big challenge. In contrast to mandatory reading, book challenges are external motivators that use the power of community for motivation. Also, students can simply opt not to join if they don’t want to. They can also be kept as a separate section, for example, creating a separate group in your LMS for challenges doesn’t disrupt the normal flow of lessons.

    Challenges are, however, very fun ways to introduce themes into reading, such as reading a mystery book in October or a Christmas themed book in December. Here’s some inspiration to get things started. The trick is to allow students to pick their own book for the month and read for pleasure only. Make sure that you and other educators join in the fun!

  7. Chat with authors

    Some authors might be happy to read to your students, and depending on your school’s budget, they might charge a fee or do it for free. For finding an author, Google is your friend and so is social media and sites such as Goodreads.

    Having a real author in person or virtually is really exciting since students get to have a real conversation with someone they might admire and even be inspired to enhance their writing skills, and who knows, write their own stories.

    If distance is a problem, video calls are also more accessible, save time and you could be teaching anywhere and still be able to bring an author in your classroom.

  8. Make it an event

    To encourage reading, some schools have gone out to make entire events that take place year-round, not just in March. Schools have even partnered with other institutions to create international film festivals for booktrailers.

    But you don’t need to organize a festival to have an impact. Finding a name for your community of student readers, a visual identity and maybe a hashtag for Twitter updates can be enough to get things started.

    The entire school might want to join in, at least in the challenges and read-alongs. Even dedicating one day to reading, such as the "Tucked-In Tuesdays" in which first-year principal Dr. Belinda George reads to her students via livestream can create a culture of reading.

You can find magic wherever you look. Sit back and relax, all you need is a book. - Dr. Seuss

Seeing what the online book community does right can help teachers create better and more engaging classroom activities or extra activities that promote literacy. All in all, what this community does best is influence people to read more for pleasure and their own personal development, which are habits that your students could use way after they finish formal education. This is a skill that sticks with you for life.

Read more: Teaching and reading literature in the digital age

Happy National Reading month everyone!

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