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Making Reading Social: The Story Behind BiblioNasium

Posted in Ed Tech on December 5, 2013 by

Here at Knewton we’re dedicated to supporting other startups that, while not affiliated with Knewton, are part of the edtech community. This post is written by Marjan Ghara, the founder of BiblioNasium, a social media reading community for kids. BiblioNasium promots literary skills and extends independent reading for grades K-8.

What inspired you to found BiblioNasium? What is the story behind your vision?

As a mother to two elementary school age children, I was spending a great deal of time, trying to find the next and the next good books for my kids to read. The books that my son liked, were not necessarily the books that my daughter liked. Also when I searched online for children’s book recommendations, the lists and choices were overwhelming. However, I found that the best book recommendations came from my children’s teachers and from the librarians. They were able to make personalized book recommendations for each of my children based on their individual preferences. I wanted a way to connect myself as the parent, to the teacher and librarian, to get their recommendations, have them online available and accessible.

It was my kids that mentioned that they get book suggestions from their friends and that they would be more likely to read a book that a friend recommended. So I set out to connect kids to the three constituents that most influenced what they read–their friends, teachers and parents–to share and exchange book recommendations. We started there and then the platform grew!

What’s the best part of work everyday?

On any given day, I wear multiple hats. I might work on a product feature, engage online with our users, put together presentations and plans, meet with partners, pitch to potential investors … Everyday is different and that is fun. But honestly, the best part is when we get an email, or a tweet or a blog post from a teacher or parent that mentions how BiblioNasium is exciting their kids about reading, how it is engaging them to talk about books or how our platform is helping educators and parents to manage and promote reading. Our user base so far has grown organically through word-of-mouth online and offline, from our librarian, teacher and parent users. We have a wonderfully dedicated and loyal community. I have “met” many people online through BiblioNasium, from around the world, who share the same mission and passion to get kids to read. That is really the best part.

In the process of running BiblioNasium, what have you learned about children’s reading tastes or the social aspect of reading? Has anything surprised you?

Children are similar to adults in that they follow trends. They are influenced by their peers, and they do talk about and share many things. This generation, in particular, is increasingly digitally savvy and they like to be social online. We took advantage of that and extended it to reading. One of the most used features on our site, is the ability for kids to recommend books to their friends and fellow classmates. At times, the most recommended books tend to follow what is new and trendy in general. For example, a new Diary of a Wimpy Kid was recently released and it is now on top of our kids’ recommended charts as well. The social aspect gets kids to talk about books. It gives them a context and a framework to mention books in their interactions. It also gives children the opportunity to learn about and discover books that they might not have considered.

How do you think new media will influence the future of reading in our society?

There is great opportunity to use technology to promote and advance reading. One way is by engaging this generation online, through the use of the new digital platforms where they like to “hang out”. Some children like to read and are already hooked. Those kids don’t need additional incentives or support. But for the rest, it is easier and more fun to use gamification, tracking, rewards and incentives online to engage them. We need to make reading fun and social and we can use digital platforms to do that. Also we know that kids do follow trends and do listen to their peers, so by giving them an opportunity to share and exchange book recommendations online in a cool and easy way, we can generate “book talk” and excitement.

Second, when kids track and record their reading online and tag their favorite books, that data becomes invaluable to their parent and educator in helping guide their choices. For example if a child tends to “Favorite” sports books, then the parent or teacher knows to recommend sports books. If a child is not reading consistently, it becomes more apparent when there is a record of their reading progress. When kids read consistently below their reading level, that information becomes important. This data can and should be collected online where tracking it, aggregating it, monitoring and displaying it becomes a great deal easier and actionable than if it is done on paper.

Finally, new media as a delivery platform for the content, clearly makes it simpler to access books. Today, you don’t have to wait to go to the library to check out a book. You can download a book from the likes of Amazon or from the public library at anytime, from anywhere. There are plenty of reading resources and free e-books online. For the younger children, the multi-media, interactive books are fantastic. Books that read along with you, books that highlight words as they are read, books that include text, audio and video to tell stories. Those are all exciting and will go a long way to engage and excite younger kids about reading.

What’s the biggest problem or challenge facing our country today around reading?

All children are taught to read in the classroom, and teachers and librarians make every effort to connect children with books in school. However, research has shown that the best predictor of a child’s reading achievement, reading comprehension and vocabulary is the amount of time they spend on independent reading. That is reading that they mostly do outside of the classroom. It’s the reading they do at home, on the weekend, on a winter break, over summer. Our kids are not reading enough outside of the classroom. Parents play a big role in that and have to make reading a priority in their children’s lives.

Of course, children are distracted and their attention spams are limited and the same digital medium that can deliver ebooks, is also delivering games, music and videos. So books have to also compete with those contents.

What causes some children to love reading in their spare time and others to avoid it?

First, it is finding the book or books that “hook” them. When children find books that are at the right reading and comprehension level, with content that is relevant and appealing to them, they have a positive experience with reading. If kids are given books that are too easy, they become bored; if the books are too difficult, the experience is frustrating. The challenge is matching the right books to a child over and over until they catch the reading bug. We need to help each child with his/her own personalized reading list that can engage and excite them. Unfortunately, I think for many children reading becomes a discouraging experience.

Second, reading is like sports. You have to set goals, have discipline and most important, practice to get better. Those kids that read more, become better readers, and the better they become, the more they enjoy reading.

As adults our responsibility is to help children find books that will interest them and to make sure they practice reading regularly. For some, it also requires setting goals, challenges and monitoring them, for others it requires less intervention. Schools need to partner with parents to make that happen.

To instill the love of reading in a child, is one of the best gifts we can give them.