Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Schools Already Struggled to Teach Reading Right. Now They Have to Do It Online

By Benjamin Herold — September 29, 2020 11 min read
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Ready or not, the nation’s elementary school educators are staring down a daunting new challenge: teach hundreds of thousands of young children to read, without being able to interact with them in person, using instead digital tools and videoconferencing platforms in sweeping new ways that are mostly untested.

Even before public schools shut their physical doors to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, many educators were struggling with this most fundamental of tasks. Especially concerning was schools’ scattershot, often-unscientific approach to teaching the basic building blocks of reading, such as understanding how sounds are put together to form words. That’s likely one reason why just 35 percent of American 4th graders are proficient readers, according to the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Now, with thousands of schools reopening virtually or using a mix of online and in-person instruction, even those teachers trying the kind of phonics instruction supported by cognitive science will be forced to do so remotely, in online environments they are still learning to navigate. Many more educators appear likely to try a hodgepodge of early-literacy software programs and digital apps—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.

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 children.

The best case, according to experts in early literacy and educational technology consulted by Education Week, is that schools use the coming year to actually improve how they teach reading, responding to emergency conditions by finally discarding practices and tools that don’t work. In this scenario, technology would actively help teachers provide a strong foundation in phonics and other foundational skills, while giving students ample opportunities to apply what they’ve learned and build vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency while developing a lifelong love of reading.

The more realistic hope is that schools manage to tread water, making do under difficult conditions to ensure young readers don’t completely miss out on a crucial window for building basic skills.

The fear, though, is that such a catastrophe is already underway, especially for those students who are living in poverty, have special needs, or are still learning English. Huge gaps in access to technology remain. Coronavirus-related deaths, sickness, and economic hardship are causing mounting trauma, especially in the Black, brown, and Indigenous communities bearing the brunt of the pandemic. And many schools, already resistant to change, were beset this summer by budget cuts and constantly shifting guidance from state and federal officials, leading them to provide early-elementary teachers with little or no training around new forms of remote literacy instruction.

“We’re in totally uncharted space,” said Kyle Snow, a senior research associate for RMC Research Corporation and formerly a senior scholar at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “Figuring out how to consistently reach kids with substantive instruction targeted at foundational skills is the critical challenge. But even if you assume that we had figured out how to do that—which we had not—we now have to dramatically shift what we’re doing because of the pandemic.”

‘Not a Computerized Process’

Part of the problem is that the technology tools now available for early-literacy instruction are all over the map when it comes to quality.

Some older technologies, including public television shows such as Sesame Street, Between the Lions, and Super WHY, have a robust research base behind them. But many of the newer apps and software programs currently being marketed to teachers, parents, and caregivers do not.

That doesn’t mean that all the digital tools now available to schools are bad. Some, such as the learn-to-read app Homer, have shown evidence of success.The best, experts say, are “explicit and systematic” about helping children learn foundational reading skills. That means they take an orderly approach to introducing students to the sounds that make up the English language, showing how those “phonemes” correspond to different letters and letter combinations. They also follow a coherent progression demonstrating how letters are put together to form words and then sentences.

As an added benefit, some of these technology tools also have advantages over print materials for K-2 students. Electronic books, for example, might include animations demonstrating what a “stampede” looks and sounds like, helping improve comprehension. And where traditional “word work” might involve children spending a half-hour or more cutting out printed words and sorting them into groups based on whether they feature a long-a or short-a sound, digital tools allow for that same process to be done more efficiently, via dragging and dropping on a screen.

Still, those same features can also be counterproductive. Most experts say it’s critical that young children learn to sound out unfamiliar words, for example, but some animations may pull their attention away from printed text. Likewise, some digital word-sort tools automatically correct children when they place a word in an incorrect sound-group, limiting the child’s opportunities to discover and learn from mistakes.

“Part of learning to read is going through struggle,” said Heather Schugar, a literacy professor at West Chester University. “But a lot of the technology we have does the thinking for kids.”

Bigger picture, even the best digital tools are intended to complement classroom instruction. There’s a world of difference between letting students use an app to practice and reinforce specific literacy skills and teaching those same skills from scratch in a way that will motivate an individual child based on his or her unique real-world interests, background knowledge, and strengths.

The nuanced feedback that only humans can provide is crucial to good literacy instruction, said Elena Forzani, an assistant professor of literacy education at Boston University. Imagine a 1st grader struggling over words as she reads aloud. A good teacher will already have a strong sense of who a child is and what he or she knows and will be closely attuned to things like facial expressions and body language as the child reads—information that will, in turn, shape the responses and encouragement the teacher offers.

Good teachers will also try to identify misunderstandings in real-time. Is the problem that a child doesn’t understand that the letters “s-l-e-d” form the word “sled?” Or is the problem that the child doesn’t understand the concept of a sled?

Those are the kinds of instructional decisions that technology simply can’t make, experts said.

“Learning to read is not a computerized process,” said Lisa Guernsey, a senior education policy advisor at New America and co-author of Tap, Click, Read.

Reading Instruction Via Zoom

In many ways, then, the more pressing question facing schools is whether human teachers can provide high-quality reading instruction over videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and Google Meet.

The experts consulted by Education Week generally believed that the types of human-to-human attention and feedback described above are at least possible when teachers and students are connected via screens. University of Michigan literacy professor Nell Duke, for example, produced last spring a series of videos showing what good remote instruction in foundational reading skills looks like.

In one video, Duke provided explicit phonics instruction around the sound “oi” to literacy coaches playing the role of students, whom she interacted with online, via Zoom.

“First, let’s see if you can say that sound. Ruth, can you say ‘oi’ for us?” Duke began, listening closely as each student enunciated the sound on the separate panels on her screen. Then, she read a series of words, asking the students to indicate whether each contained the ‘oi’ sound, followed by direct instruction.

“So that sound ‘oi’ is in a lot of words. And we have two ways we usually spell the ‘oi’ sound,” Duke told the faces on her screen. “We either spell it with an ‘o-y,’ like in ‘toy,’ or we spell it with an ‘o-i,’ like in ‘coin.’”

Throughout, she used technology features to interact with the group and gauge each student’s understanding. After reading out sample words, for example, Duke asked the students to click the platform’s “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” buttons to indicate whether each contained the ‘oi’ sound. During her direct instruction, she also shared PowerPoint slides with pictures of a toy and a coin to reinforce her point.

In a second video, during an “interactive writing lesson,” she and her students worked together on Google Jamboard to write a letter that began ‘Dear Dave.’ Some of the children used the mouse on their computer to draw the letter ‘D,’ and Duke would then ask the children to say what sound the letter ‘D’ made, alone, and then together as a group.

In an interview, Duke told Education Week that such instructional practices are already backed by significant research when used in-person. Because there is such little evidence about teaching children to read remotely, she recommends educators focus on trying to reproduce these practices when using videoconferencing tools.

“Let’s take what works in the classroom and try to figure out how to create a digital version of that,” she said.

Challenges to such an approach abound, however. If children or teachers don’t have access to a device or the internet, such instruction can’t get off the ground. If the audio quality of a Zoom session is choppy, clearly communicating specific sounds and gauging whether students are able to recognize them becomes very difficult.

Plus, writing a letter on paper with a pencil is very different than drawing a letter on screen with a mouse; researchers don’t yet know if the two approaches have the same effect on children’s learning, but it is clear the latter approach will usually require dedicated time for explicit instruction on how to use technology tools correctly.

And the biggest barrier of all to reading instruction-via-videoconference may be numbers. It’s not realistic to expect teachers to engage and closely monitor 20-plus young children in 20-plus separate Zoom panels on their screens for an extended period of time.

And while some videoconferencing platforms offer “breakout rooms,” using such features for the type of small-group reading instruction that some experts prize is still no easy task. In a classroom setting, for example, teachers often run such groups while keeping one eye on the rest of the class, to make sure they’re working independently. But such multitasking is far more challenging via videoconference. And even when it does work, many teachers have found that creating separate lessons for each small group is far more time-consuming when done remotely and via video than when done in person.

Such realities must be taken into account when setting expectations for reading instruction this fall, experts cautioned.

“The question is, can we maintain the integrity of the techniques that we know work, while dealing with the affordances and constraints of the digital environment?” Duke said.

‘That’s What I’m Worried About’

For some in the early-literacy world, the massive experiment ahead offers at least one reason for excitement.

“We’ve been using technology for the sake of using technology, without really having a conscious plan for ‘why,’” said Schugar, the West Chester University professor. “Now is the time to think about how we really leverage these very powerful tools.”

Far more prevalent, though, are worries that states and districts failed to use the summer to develop reopening plans with sound literacy instructional practices, potentially missing the window to avoid disaster this fall. Especially concerning are some schools’ stubborn attachments to debunked practices that minimize the importance of explicit phonics instruction, as well as the lack of training that teachers have been given to translate proven practices into the digital and online worlds.

“Districts were just starting to form their [back to school] plans in late August, and many are still scrambling to figure out what this should look like for our youngest learners,” Seeta Pai, the executive director of education at Boston-based public television station GBH and a former lead researcher at Sesame Workshop and Common Sense Media. “That’s what I’m worried about.”

Given the broader context in which schools are operating, it’s easy to believe that muddling through might be the best we can hope for in the months ahead.

That would be a better outcome than what happened last spring, when thousands of America’s emerging readers are believed to have dropped out of remote instruction altogether. Countless more received spotty instruction that fueled fears of widespread learning loss.

In the months since, the number of coronavirus deaths in the country has surged above 200,000;federal unemployment benefits stopped for many struggling families; Congress failed to act on financial help for struggling states and school districts; and waves of civil unrest followed police shootings of Black citizens.

As a result, a generation of young children has headed to school, some for the first time, many having endured significant trauma, often without having been able to visit a library or sit with a teacher or share a book with a friend in months. Many districts began the new year without adequate or reliable diagnostic tools to remotely assess where these children are starting their reading journeys. Teachers have been left to tackle a big challenge, with little support.

It’s no surprise, then, what teachers and parents of young children have told experts like Pai of GBH as the new year gets underway.

“The number one thing we’re seeing is anxiety,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as Schools Face a Daunting Challenge: Teaching Reading Online


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