Can You Actually Teach Kids to Read Online?

When remote learning muddies the already complicated process of learning to read, teachers get creative and find solutions.

November 25, 2020
skana / Twenty20

When a child is learning to read, they’re engaging in an incredibly complex cognitive process that demands decoding, memorization, identification, comprehension, and motivation. That means that teachers need to bring a nuanced understanding of the science that underpins that cognitive process to their literacy instruction, along with a sensitivity to the distinct skills and needs of each student.

Distance learning has significantly upped the ante, reports Benjamin Herold for Education Week, as teachers attempt to transform literacy pedagogy that often relies on intimate, in-person interaction between teachers and students into a strategy that can work via videoconferencing—a task that’s often compounded by unreliable internet access or a shortage of books that can be mailed home.

At Joyner Elementary School in Mississippi, for example, kindergarten teacher Jessica Everett is responsible for teaching 31 kids to read from home, according to a recent article on The 74. In a normal year, she might “have students shape letters with pipe-cleaners, playdough and LEGOs,” but this year she’s concerned “she won’t be able to help them make the same connections among letters, sounds and words without being there in person, in her classroom, directing their attention and offering hands-on lessons.”

The urgency is real: Reading is best learned at a very young age, when the developing mind is highly receptive to language, so a significant delay in the development of reading fluency may not be recoverable. And early learning experiences, the research repeatedly shows, are linked to later school achievement, fewer grade retentions, emotional and social well-being, and reduced incidences of juvenile delinquency—all of which wind up affecting adult productivity.

“Add it all up, and America’s K-12 system is about to embark on a massive experiment with incredibly high stakes for an entire generation of young readers,” concludes Education Week’s Herold.

Into Uncharted Waters

Good reading teachers typically rely on a range of proven strategies to get their students accustomed to the complexity of reading. Many use decoding approaches like phonics, text-based lessons, choice reading, interactive read-alouds, tailored feedback, and multi-sensory approaches like tracing letters or reading manipulatives like sight word games or sentence building cards.

But in the face of the crisis, even veteran educators are suddenly in uncharted waters. Without daily access to their students in the classroom, they’re left to improvise with untried tech tools, many of which were designed to be supplemental rather than fundamental to teaching literacy.

“Many more educators appear likely to try a hodgepodge of early-literacy software programs and digital apps,” Herold writes of the limited range of options, “many of which have shown no evidence of effectiveness, and almost all of which are best-suited as supplements to regular classroom teaching—as primary instructional tools.”

Some tools even strip important challenges from the process of learning to read by doing the thinking for kids. As Heather Schugar, a literacy professor at West Chester University shared with Education Week, “Part of learning to read is going through struggle.”

For teachers with students who have dyslexia or other reading difficulties, the struggle to learn to read in a distance learning setting can be amplified. The Orton-Gillingham Approach, for example, relies on a multisensory approach to teaching phonics, but without in-person guidance from an attentive teacher, it can be hard to use the auditory, visual, and tactile-kinesthetic approaches that are integral to the practice.

A Strength-Based Lens

Nell Duke, a professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture at the University of Michigan, agrees that the biggest difficulty lies in asynchronous time, specifically the lack of a “direct teacher presence.” Worksheets, instructions, books, and videos don’t adequately replace in-person teacher mediation, where a teacher adjusts or coaches in the moment. “We just don’t know how to move the needle substantially for children in early literacy without direct contact and interaction,” she says.

But Duke believes that synchronous instruction can work well through videoconferencing. “You can still do phonics instruction by videoconference. You can still listen to children read and use information from that to plan future instruction. You can still work on more phonological awareness. You can still read to them and do an interactive read-aloud,” she says.

Everett, the kindergarten teacher, has adjusted and now thinks of her parents as her “co-teachers” at home; she’s in constant contact with them to explain not just her lesson plans, but the research behind her multisensory instructional approach. Another literacy expert points to polling features in learning management systems as a new way to maintain the interaction that is so important with literacy instruction, while another teacher shares how she uses Flipgrid for interactive read-alouds.

Meanwhile, teachers who work with students with dyslexia are improvising in synchronous and asynchronous instruction and see their students make progress. Document cameras can provide close-ups of interactive lessons with objects and tracing, and dry erase boards and virtual whiteboards can work for directed spelling activities.

Just because it can be done, however, doesn’t mean that it’s the same, or as effective. The trick for teachers, Duke says, is to shift their mindset. “The key is to not take a deficit perspective on remote teaching. It’s probably not healthy, and it’s certainly not productive, to constantly focus on what these remote teaching contexts can’t do.”

Getting Beyond Traditional Books

According to Duke, it’s also important for teachers to let go of preconceived notions of what a text is.

“Education tends to have a strong book bias,” she says. But when it's a challenge to get books into children’s homes and hands, much less the same book into the hands of every child in a class, you have to expand your notion of what qualifies as a text. Online magazines and web sites can function as text, she says, and children can write and read each other’s texts, or teachers can even write their own. “I know that sounds like a lot of work, but sometimes it can be faster to write a text ourselves than it is to find exactly the right text for our teaching point,” she says. TextProject, a site that offers high-quality, open-access student texts as well as teachers’ guides, also offers alternatives.

Teachers should remember that interaction is what is most important, and that with read-alouds in particular, the value lies in the interaction around the book—the conversation, the discussion, the trading of ideas—rather than in the book itself.

Drop the Fixation With Benchmarks

As for the big picture, Duke cautions against fixating on benchmarking in the face of remote learning when those benchmarks are in some ways artificial. “The way we decide what constitutes 3rd grade reading is some combination of community members and teachers at the state level [who] get together with a bunch of test items and decide what percentage of those test items kids should get right at that age,” she says. “It would be perfectly legitimate for our society [during COVID-19] to decide that we have a different set of standards, [and] we’re going to focus on moving every kid forward, but we’re not going to focus on getting every kid to the socially constructed benchmark that we decided on pre-pandemic.”

The development of content knowledge, which is highly related to children’s long-term reading success, is also paramount. (Look to the famous baseball experiment for evidence that background knowledge has a profound effect on reading comprehension.)

Educators should not lose sight of the fact that as disruptive as this moment in history is, it can yield remarkable insights on early-literacy development and instruction. Schugar, the professor from West Chester University, put it to Education Week this way: “We’ve been using technology for the sake of using technology, without really having a conscious plan for ‘why.’ Now is the time to think about how we really leverage those very powerful tools.”

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