What I have Learned
By Priya Minhas
I joined Story Shares in October 2014, having previously worked with young adults who struggled to read in both Spain and India. Being an avid reader myself from a young age, seeing young adults denied access to the joy of connecting with a story is something that has never sit comfortably with me.
Before joining Story Shares, the ‘literacy crisis’ was something I was familiar with yet didn’t quite understand in its entirety. The list of causes that perpetuate the issue are complex. However, with the rapidly growing list of educational technology tools created to respond to the issue, and the Internet accessible to more people than ever, it is still shocking to consider that 70% of high school students require some form of reading remediation.
Initially, what intrigued me most about Story Shares was the concept of a ‘digital literacy hub,’ the idea of bringing writers and readers together. It makes perfect sense that in order to engage struggling readers, stories must be catered specifically to their interest as well as ability level. Yet, as I began to notice, many of the solutions available to this demographic provide stock content. Although the technology may be advanced and intuitive, if the content itself is not engaging, it makes little difference. Regardless of ability level, if you cannot find a point of connection or interest in a book, or even a tweet, it is unlikely that you will spend your time reading it.
The prospect of working with writers and guiding them to create high-interest, high-readability content for a huge audience is an exciting and endless opportunity. As I learn more about how our tool is developing, it is clear that we focus on the reader every step of the way. In order to improve ability, Story Shares prioritizes interest. One of the most important things I have learned through working with students is that you cannot have one without the other. If students, at any age and ability level, are not engaged to some extent by what is in front of them, they will rarely continue to work hard at it.
Again, it seems obvious that if the key to learning to read is practice, then we should be focusing on how to get students to keep reading. I have grown up in an increasingly mobile world where my attention span, like most of us, seems to get shorter by the year and the list of choices for most things are dizzying. This means creating quality content is more important now than ever. Yet still, stock content is often what is offered to most young adults reading below grade level today. Of course a 15-year-old will not be engaged by stories meant for someone learning to read in the 4th grade!
I also grew up during the peak of the Harry Potter phenomenon. This meant that I was lucky to be ‘young’ enough to get away with reading the latest addition to the series anywhere and everywhere without caring what I looked like. Fast forward 12 years or so and I can now understand why alternative ‘adult’ covers were sold for the millions of adults around the world who wanted to read what was considered a ‘childish’ series in public. Despite the age-old saying, we do judge books by their covers.
Having taught both children and adults, I have witnessed first hand how learning to read as a child and learning to read as a teenager or adult are two very different experiences. The latter is often accompanied with much more inhibition/embarrassment. During my first few months with Story Shares, I joined a number of meetings in which we discussed the development of the website, logo, color scheme, and technology itself in light of this. It is not enough to provide engaging stories without delivering these stories in a way that is intuitive and aesthetically appealing, rather than stigmatizing. As someone who has struggled in front of a class of uninterested teenagers, I could fully appreciate the importance of creating something that was fun and appealing to use. The social sharing and customizable features that will be available for readers are a direct response to this.
Although I am almost 6 months into my position as outreach and engagement coordinator with Story Shares, I am still overwhelmed by the scope of issues that contribute to the literacy gap in the U.S. However, thanks to Story Shares’s approach, one of the most important things I have learned is to zoom in on the crisis and consider each reader as an individual. Anyone who is fortunate enough to read proficiently will most likely owe this to hours and hours spent reading their favorite author. I am excited to be working with Story Shares to make this experience accessible to millions more!