Teaching students to read is one of the most foundational responsibilities of the U.S. educational system. It's a baseline skill with massive implications not just for a child's future education but for the child's quality of life and ability to navigate the world. Yet, there's much about teaching students to read that remains challenging for America's educators, and reading education is made even more daunting when students are learning across in-person and virtual spaces.
However, this challenge also represents an opportunity. Some experts who spoke to Education Week as part of a 2020 special report on literacy are hopeful that the disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic offer a chance to reimagine literacy education. Teaching reading via a hybrid in-person and virtual model requires flexibility and multiple strategies and tools.
The hybrid literacy model should be in line with a multimedia approach championed by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which notes in its Instructional Foundations and Policy Guidelines: "A program of effective reading (and writing) instruction is an ongoing journey throughout one's schooling and must include opportunities to engage with a wide range of genres, including digital and multimodal texts."
Here are five strategies for teaching reading that educators can apply across formats.
- Read aloud together
Reading aloud with a class is a staple exercise of literacy education that can translate to the virtual space. Dr. Marnie Ginsburg, founder of Reading Simplified, notes that Zoom also offers the option to record a read-aloud so that students who can't join live (due to technological or scheduling issues) can still watch and read along with the group later.
Online or in-person read-aloud sessions should be interactive, allowing the teacher to pause, take questions and provide feedback. No matter the format, the emphasis should be on tested, proven methods of instruction, notes University of Michigan literacy professor Nell Duke in Education Week.
- Offer a variety of texts
Just like a varied diet is important to good nutrition, varied reading content is important to developing healthy literacy skills. The NCTE encourages educators to provide a range of written materials intended for a variety of audiences. This can include fiction and non-fiction, periodicals, catalogues, journals, poems, reference books, comic books and more — both in digital and physical formats. Connected texts offer the chance for readers to make especially rich connections, perhaps connecting present-day themes to history or scientific concepts to art. Thematic links should create connective tissue across genres and formats.
- Fold in writing exercises
At grade levels where short writing exercises are appropriate, Ginsburg explains methods by which typical journal or response writing can be virtual: Google Docs or similar software allow students to type and share their work in real-time or to save it and upload it later when they're able to access the internet. (This is especially helpful for families with technology barriers.)
Writing reinforces reading skills, and it can also draw connections between what's read and students' lives. This explicitly addresses two of NCTE's principles: "Reading instruction must focus primarily on meaning. … Explicit teaching of reading skills is most effective when it is embedded in the context of meaningful reading." Asking students to write encourages them to reflect on reading and apply it in meaningful ways.
- Incorporate a sociocultural model of reading
As put forth by the NCTE, a sociocultural approach to reading acknowledges that reading skills are not discrete; reading does not "unlock" a universal meaning of a word. Rather, reading enables readers to make meaning through words using "both their knowledge of the regularities of language and their experience and general knowledge of the world."
A sociocultural approach to literacy education — whether online or in-person — draws out students' background knowledge and context for words and concepts. It encourages them to see reading as a way to make sense of their worlds. For an educator, NCTE says this requires an "ongoing assessment of students' reading development, their interests, attitudes toward reading, motivation, and home literacy experiences." Via virtual tools or in-person conversations, educators should center reading around meaning and personal connection.
- Switch it up
Literacy experts agree that there is no one-size-fits-all reading approach that works for all students. Combining various formats for reading instruction allows for flexibility and a chance for teachers to assess what methods are working for which students.
The NCTE suggests a combination of shared reading, guided reading, literature discussion circles, individualized instruction and other creative pursuits related to reading material (like acting, dancing or making other types of art). In a virtual setting, small groups might take place in breakout rooms, while in person, students can meet in small circles spread throughout the classroom. Virtual spaces also open up creative tools, including multimedia movie-making, animation and audio recording, to reinforce concepts or vocabulary learned during a reading lesson.
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