Distance learning often requires students to work more independently than they’re used to, so as their teachers, we need to adjust the ways we help them read instructional texts.
We know that reading is an act of constructing meaning, so whenever we give students materials to read, we need to provide them with the necessary tools to understand those texts. Distance learning requires us to provide these tools in new ways—and with a greater degree of intentionality—so that we support students as they become increasingly independent.
Just as a builder can’t succeed without the correct blueprints, students need to see the blueprint for how they can succeed in our classes. In distance learning, that means we need to carefully communicate the purpose for reading each text before students begin the assignment, and this purpose needs to align directly with any assessment given.
Giving Students the Tools They Need
Our goal is for students to understand the texts and content they need for our coursework, but also to learn reading strategies they can use in subsequent assignments—and throughout their lives. We should teach these strategies explicitly so that students can recognize them as strategies they can apply to multiple texts.
In distance learning, we can teach these skills during synchronous learning as preparation for reading that occurs during asynchronous learning, or we can use our learning management systems to create gateway activities so that students complete prereading activities before the reading text is released.
We need to intentionally adapt the tools we use in our classrooms to online learning.
Make vocabulary accessible: Our approach to vocabulary will shift depending on our instructional goals. When content is key, we may need to adapt our digital texts to students’ reading levels by hyperlinking definitions and embedding context clues into digital texts, or by using digital platforms like Newsela, CommonLit, ReadWorks, or TweenTribune to select differentiated texts based on students’ reading levels.
When texts feature critical tier 2 and tier 3 words that students must master, we can use digital bulletin boards or online whiteboards to make word walls and concept sorts; Google docs and Kami to create Frayer Models, vocabulary trees, and personal dictionaries; and online games to reinforce learning. We also can teach students how to use digital tools like Google Read&Write and online dictionaries so they can better access unfamiliar texts independently.
Activate prior knowledge: Reading comprehension improves when we take time to connect the new knowledge to existing knowledge. With online whiteboards, bulletin boards, or documents, we can create mind maps or KWL charts. Virtual field trips, virtual gallery walks, playlists, and choice boards build essential background knowledge and spark curiosity. Polling features and Google Forms can serve as anticipation guides that graphically display responses.
Model success: Students of all ages and levels need us to model how to approach a difficult text. Whether on a recorded video or in a live video teaching session, we can read a selection to model pacing and expression and use think-alouds to demonstrate strategies like analyzing text features, applying SQ3R, questioning, and using fix-up strategies, such as rereading, summarizing, and making connections. Apps like Nearpod and Pear Deck make it possible to chunk video readings and add interactive questions, which allows students to participate asynchronously in think-alouds.
Monitor students’ progress: Students can get lost in the virtual world, but online monitoring tools help keep them on track. For instance, when students create a double-entry journal or Cornell Notes in a Google document, we can quickly see who’s keeping up and who’s confused. We can also continue reading conferences with Flipgrid. We can use videos to dialogue with students: They might send a video update on their reading project or read a passage aloud and describe how they constructed their understanding of the text, and we can provide video feedback, which evidence suggests may be more effective than written feedback.
During synchronous learning, breakout rooms and shared documents enable us to observe and guide how students construct meaning of texts as they participate in proven collaborative learning strategies like reciprocal teaching, literature circles, Save the Last Word for Me, and Say Something.