How to use recreational reading as an educational tool

girl reading e-book

Recreational reading is hitting a new low, also the quality of the content, but is this such a bad-case scenario?

Photo: Bigstock.

"Adults and young people beyond school age don’t read," this is one of the most widespread ideas in the way we measure people’s reading habits. According to data by the American Time Use Survey, leisure reading has been losing ground to TV. In 2017, the average American spent more than 2 hours 45 minutes per day watching TV, every day, as they dedicated only a tenth of that time to reading.

Apps like Goodreads and Book Riot helped for a while, setting reading challenges that went from 52 to 100 books a year average, but more often than not, these challenges were not completed. Last year only 16% of participants were able to finish the reading challenge.

It is safe to say that the youth is not reading books, but what are they reading then? A study conducted by the communication’s agency We are Flint found that 8 in 10 Americans made social media part of their daily lives. They spend so much time there that they could read up to 200 books a year with that time, as writer Charley Chu argues. But is it really a waste of time in comparison to reading books?

The myth of the useless content

When we think about non-fiction content, what comes first to our mind as teachers are textbooks, studies, essays, chronicles, or nay traditionally academic material. If we say that the thing young people read the most is non-fictional content, this is what we wish they are reading, but in reality, they are reading a lot of non-fictional content in social media.

"Teachers and all students need the skills that a journalist has". - Esther Wojcicki

This is bad news as well as good news. We do know social media can be the home for toxic conversation, fake news, unchecked facts, irrelevant information, and just blatant ignorance. But with the right approach, it can also be a place to build knowledge.

To set the base for the value of reading only on the material we are given can be quite limiting and damaging. Even if there's content that doesn't add new, valuable, or reliable information to the table, it can serve as a learning tool to develop skills that use logic, critical thinking, and fact-checking. Even a text defending the anti-vaxxer posture shared on Facebook could serve to that purpose. It is crucial to understand that we don’t learn from the content we read but of the way ready it.

“Teachers and all students need the skills that a journalist has,” said Esther Wojcicki in an interview for the Observatory of Educational Innovation last December at CIIE. The renowned educator and Vice Chair of Creative Commons Council explained that reading is not only a tool to obtain information but an active process that builds the way we communicate and forges our worldview.

To Wojcicki, collecting information is just the first step of this process, followed by figuring out the essential part of the collected data, checking for accuracy, relevance, and usefulness, and finally, communicate to others the consequential learning from this active reading process.

This is the main reasons for what reading is such a fundamental learning tool. Wojcicki also stressed the importance of understanding this reading level as an educational right for everybody, that should be given as early as in school age.

Reading as a social activity

Reading has always been seen as a “solo sport” until recently. With the coming social media and digital content, reading has become a collective activity. Nowadays, is not enough to just read a text or piece, people need to share it too, take it for a spin in the eye of friends and contacts, get other perspectives or confirmation of their own point on the shared material, it can even be said that people read content to share things more than to know things.

Moreover, reading is now one of the most used resources to connect with others and learn not only from the content we read but from other texts and interpretations we find through others. This is why spaces like a learning commons are so necessary to let education reach new ways to approach reading and make the most of it in an era where digital content and sharing platforms dominate the scene.

"[Students] They have to experiment with it at home, and then at school and then share that information." - Esther Wojcicki

For Wojcicki, this is the process every student must follow to get familiar with research and reading digital content. This approach also enables the flipped classroom practice, which could be a great way to make the most of reading as a social activity. Relying on the idea that you can learn from everyone, even teachers can learn something new from students findings when they let them take the lead on selecting and analyzing reading material.

If we want to keep using reading as a learning tool, we need to update our metrics and how we value useful texts. Sometimes is not about how many books you read per year, but what you understood from the reading, if you were able to communicate what you learned from it and as Wojcicki said, if you got valuable knowledge or abilities from the reading exercise, regardless of the quality of the content.