3 things to consider in teaching reading from a distance

A specialist dives into how educators can teach reading while maintaining control, differentiating lessons, and giving grace in a virtual learning environment
By: | August 27, 2020
Photo by Eliott Reyna via Unsplash.

Shantell Berrett Blake is the lead in professional development and a dyslexia specialist for Reading Horizons.

There is a vast body of evidence from multiple disciplines over the decades that champions the science of reading to be the most effective way to teach students how to read. Unfortunately, it didn’t always make it into the curriculum, but more and more educators and district staff are raising awareness about the approach and making it more prevalent in today’s classrooms.

No matter how your district is handling back to school 2020, major adjustments will need to be made in every aspect of the learning process. To help ease your educators’ strain, here are a few ways to apply the science of reading, no matter what the setting.

Controlling what you can

One of the biggest challenges is consistently gathering data to drive instruction. We can only trust the validity of that data if we know the controls. With students being at home, we can’t ensure that validity because it’s hard to gain a sense of engagement. A question educators need to ponder is, “Can we make sure we are disseminating explicit instruction in a way we can control?” One of the advantages of implementing an online reading program is that students tend to engage with it better than paper materials. Plus, most reading programs offer an analytics tool that provides insight into student progress. Measuring engagement might entail more observant measures based on video lessons and discussion posts — but those require a reliable, at-home internet connection.

From an equity standpoint, making sure every student has access to video or the internet to use a phonics-based, science-of-reading-approved program is essential. Of course, students could take advantage of their school’s internet, but now, many schools are offering hotspots to students who don’t have internet access at home. Schools are getting inventive about how to build equity in a way we have never seen before. Coming up with a plan B to support all students from all backgrounds is going to be vital to the success of a student’s virtual learning experience.

Differentiating when you can

Along the same lines, assessing different learning styles and coming up with different ways to differentiate learning to implement effective teaching methods is another way to keep students focused. For instance, a student might need more peer engagement than independent study, and educators will need to know if their students need some interaction in order to dive deeper into a concept. It’s about creating the time to provide small-group instruction online, or doing anything else we can to ensure fidelity of reading instruction so that we can differentiate from there.

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Reading programs with an online component like Reading Horizons start from a student’s initial abilities and build the student’s knowledge from there. Many programs offer different options for instruction, whether it’s virtual or not. Students can complete video lessons, worksheets, use guidance from the software — or whatever combination of these works best.

On the virtual side, educators can implement small groups for targeted instruction to meet the needs of students who perhaps are sharing a common trouble spot in their reading. There are many options coming in that are proving to be powerful and I imagine, as educators have more experience in the virtual space, there will be some amazing, out-of-the-box ways students will gain engagement in reading that we wouldn’t expect.

Giving grace

Things are not going to be perfect in the first week of school — or even in the first month of school! The additional stresses that all educators are facing can quickly put us in the fight or flight response. Processes will need to adjust in order to meet the needs of individual students. Not only do educators need to teach reading using the science of reading, but now we need to figure out how to do it in a virtual setting. One of the biggest things teachers can recognize is that it’s okay to take one thing at a time and develop mental flexibility. We will all need to give each other time and grace to accommodate all the moving parts of teaching reading.

As cliché as it might sound, we’re in this together. Our districts might be tackling some different issues, but in essence, we’re all facing a similar challenge. I’ve learned so much from educators in the last few months about all the different ideas and tactics they are bringing in. With open-hearted collaboration, we can help ease the burden and carry it together by coming up with innovative ideas as we go.

Shantell Berrett Blake is the lead in professional development and a dyslexia specialist for Reading Horizons.