Teaching Reading During COVID-19: Frustrated Students, Tech Challenges

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Claudia Margaroli teaches 1st grade English, reading, and social studies to a mix of English-language learners and native speakers at Charlotte East Language Academy, a public bilingual school in Charlotte, N.C. In a typical school year, she will have one group of students one day, and another the next.

But this is not a typical school year. All of Margaroli’s classes have moved online, due to COVID-19. Education Week talked to Margaroli about what it is like to teach reading to early-elementary students in a virtual environment.


How have you adjusted your teaching to a digital environment?

”Every day, we start with a morning meeting” to encourage social and emotional learning, Margaroli said. But she acknowledges that the morning meetings are “a little difficult through a screen. It is a lot of clicking. It’s on an iPad. There’s a lot of [tech access] issues.” And she wonders whether parents are giving their children a hand. “If parents are helping, is that work authentic?” Only about half of her students complete the assignments she gives them outside of class, so she doesn’t rely on those assignments to inform her lesson planning.

What is it like working with English-language learners in a digital environment?

Margaroli said her English-language learners are more frustrated than usual. “There’s this feeling of being rushed and that when you’re rushed you tend to speak quickly,” and may not get all the words or sounds correct, Margaroli said. That can lead to hurt feelings. “It’s hard when you are virtual, and I see a child upset with their microphone off. They have to choose to ask me for help.” She has reminded children that they need to let her know if they are struggling, telling her students: “I do not expect perfection.”

What’s your biggest worry about kids learning to read in remote learning environments?

“I’m a young teacher so you’d think I’d be more into tech,” Margaroli said. But she wants her students to have experience with tangible books. “I still deeply believe that children need books in their hands every day, multiple times a day, and that has been a gap or deficiency” of online learning.

What has been the impact of online teaching on grouping?

“In person, I have the flexibility to change my leveled groups on a whim whenever I want,” said Margaroli. She’d move a student if they gained a particular skill or seemed not to be grasping a concept. But now, it’s harder to make those shifts. “Every time I change groups virtually that means sending out a new schedule and a link,” she explained.

So, she said, “I’m becoming a bigger risk-taker with the groups.” If Margaroli feels students will move on to the next challenge even if that was not her original plan. “I feel like there’s a lot of trust with the kids and me. We are risk-takers and we’re flexible and we’re all in this together.”

Do you feel like your students are mastering the material?

“I think the reading foundational skills” are developing nicely, said Margaroli, whose students returned to school in mid-August. The majority of my kids knew very, very few letter sounds [at the beginning of the year] and are almost at 100 percent at letter sounds [now]. Phonics. Decoding. Spelling. I feel like my kids are learning at the exact same pace we would in a classroom.”

But she’s less sure about writing. “I have found it hard with my [computer] camera to model a writing piece… It’s not an authentic writing experience. I can’t see what they are writing unless they hold it up themselves.”

Has there been anything positive about teaching during COVID-19?

“I have really loved the online resources with phonics.”

Any other advice for teachers who are struggling with teaching reading during COVID-19?

“I feel like it’s so important for teachers, even if you are only having five kids log on, to not become complacent. Just like in the classroom where we say every kid can learn, we need to remember that every single child can learn virtually, too.”

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