Leveraging Social Media for Literacy

Leveraging Social Media for Literacy

Social media is an undeniable force in students’ rapidly evolving digital world. Middle- and high-school educators are all too familiar with the sight of students texting, Snapchatting, and watching videos between class. But just how much time are students spending on social media? According to a report from Common Sense Media, teenagers from ages 13 to 18 consume an average of nine hours of entertainment media a day!

Let’s take a closer look at how that media time is broken down, on average:

  • 39 percent of digital screen time goes toward “passive” consumption: reading, watching, or listening to content

  • 25 percent of time is devoted to interactive content: playing games or browsing the web

  • 26 percent of time goes into communication through social media or video-chatting

  • 3 percent of time involves content creation: writing, coding, or making digital art or music

It seems that while the digital age has ushered in many new forms of entertainment, teens are still spending a great deal of time learning new ideas, interacting with each other, and expressing themselves—all fundamental goals of literacy. With this in mind, instead of fighting against screen time and social media, we can leverage it as way to encourage reading and writing skills.

Incorporating elements of social media and digital entertainment into lessons may be especially effective for students who struggle the most with literacy. For instance, a study by the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development found that social media was a powerful literacy tool for Somali immigrants.

Minnesota, which has the largest Somali population in the United States, is familiar with the common struggles of immigrant students. Due to little to no access to functioning schools during the war in their home country and long waits in refugee camps before coming to the U.S., adolescent students from Somalia frequently experience low print literacy. However, after piloting a social media unit, the University of Minnesota made several fascinating discoveries: 

  • Students found writing online posts rewarding because they were affirmed by their peers.

  • During the unit, students began using more complex language both online and offline.

  • Students were more engaged in learning activities and used written English more extensively in their online safe spaces than in offline alternatives.

Clearly, social media has a lot to offer for students building literacy skills. Below, we’ve identified three ways that educators can put social media to work in their classrooms. Read on for our top tips on using visuals, peer interactions, and a little bit of fun to build literacy.


Use visuals

Snapchat, Pinterest, and Instagram are all social media platforms that use images to convey meaning and foster connections. Particularly for struggling readers and ELLs, finding the right image—and then coming up with the words to accompany it—can be a valuable tool to convey meaning. Try these creative ideas for using visual media in classroom assignments: 

  • Create a group board on Pinterest for each unit, then ask students to share links to relevant articles and post recaptioned images to the group board. Bonus: In addition to analyzing books, plays, and poetry online, you can also create boards devoted to study tips, tricky grammar rules, and other helpful resources.

  • Snapchat allows students to add filters, captions, and emojis to pictures and short films, so why not reframe “reader response” questions to include visuals like these? No Snapchat in school? No problem. Students can use a computer art program to design personal emojis or decorate pictures to convey what they’re thinking and feeling.

  • Instagram is a primarily visual platform, but there are plenty of opportunities for captioning, commenting, and linking ideas with hashtags. Ask students to share their experiences reading assigned material and recommend their favorite books. Be sure to create a hashtag for your class or project that students can use to find and share each other's posts.

Start conversations with peers

Regardless of the medium you choose, encouraging students to like, share, and comment on each other's posts is key. Social support and peer validation are two of the most powerful draws of social media, so don’t be afraid to leverage it in the classroom in the following ways:

  • Use a Twitter thread to hold group discussions. Online conversations hold several advantages, including the ability for educators to simply look over the thread when grading individual participation. Social media can make conversation easier for students, too. While face-to-face conversations can be intimidating for those who are still mastering social conventions, online turn-taking is different: When two people cross-post, they simply go back and read what they missed. Allowing students to articulate and respond to each other’s thoughts in writing can ensure everyone is heard.

  • Blogs are a great way to share longer opinions, analyses, and ideas. Instead of asking students to present their papers in class, post these on an online blog and ask students to leave each other comments. Seeing how classmates respond to their thoughts can be a great motivator for shy or struggling students.

Have some fun!

Hard work doesn’t have to be serious! Using social media in the classroom gives students a chance to stretch their imagination and have a little fun. Try these ideas for a playful spin on literacy lessons: 

  • Use social media to flip the script by asking students to re-plot a classic story in the modern day. How would the characters communicate with each other if they had social media available? How would it solve (or add to) their conflicts?

  • Look for other readers online. Social networks such as Goodreads and Library Thing allow readers to share what’s on their bookshelf and write reviews, so you could create a classroom account or a book review blog for students to share their opinions on what they're reading.

  • Reimagine literary figures as modern-day social media mavens. If your students are studying Dorothy Parker, put together the tweets she would write. What kind of pictures would Thoreau or Wordsworth share on Instagram? How would Shakespeare use Snapchat?

When we look at how adolescents are using entertainment media, we see that they’re really spending a great deal of time reading, writing, and communicating with each other. With this in mind, it’s smart to bring these natural literacy experiences into the classroom—and for struggling readers or ELLs, using social media to practice reading and writing may be even more rewarding than traditional methods. By increasing peer interactions, incorporating visuals, and even being a little playful, we can elevate social media from an extracurricular hobby to a powerful learning tool.

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