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How to Teach Reading With a Digital Mindset: Researcher Nell Duke’s Advice

By Mark Lieberman — September 29, 2020 6 min read
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School building closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have hit younger students particularly hard. One of the key functions of schools for early-age students is laying the foundation for the basic reading skills that will be essential for the rest of their lives.

Millions of students across the country are continuing to learn at home as the 2020-21 school year begins. That means educators need new tools to keep reading instruction consistent and new philosophies for engaging students at a distance.

Nell Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan School of Education, has been examining the literature and developing new instructional practices to meet the ever-shifting challenges of the pandemic and its effect on schools. Education Week asked her how teachers should adjust their practices and recalibrate their priorities to ensure students are gaining fundamental reading skills.

What are the biggest difficulties teaching reading with digital tools?

In an asynchronous context, the problem is that there’s not a direct teacher presence. The teacher presence can only be through artifacts: a worksheet, a set of instructions, a set of books the teacher leads, a video the child can access through community television. The research we have shows what makes a substantial difference in children’s literacy development almost always is teacher-mediated: The teacher making a certain instructional move, or coaching in a certain way. We just don’t know how to move the needle substantially for children in early literacy without direct contact and interaction.

A number of PBS kids television programs have been tested in research and have been shown to foster children’s development. Some computer programs and devices are designed to be able to be used offline, like OneTab from Open Up Resources. They seem to be able to help kids get a little bit better at certain foundational literacy skills tasks. But they don’t get kids to the point where they’re meeting grade-level standards in literacy from working on those devices.

The synchronous context, I have a lot more optimism about. There are a lot of research-tested instructional techniques that can be used through videoconferencing. They need to be modified somewhat to make sense for that context, but versions of them are similar enough that they would still work. 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. It’s a little more awkward, it’s a little clunkier [than in-person instruction].

Will it be possible for teachers to mitigate that awkwardness and clunkiness?

No matter how how hard we try, no matter how much we plan, there’s no way that teaching online via videoconference is going to be the same as teaching in the classroom. I think that shifting that mindset’s really helpful because we’re not constantly disappointing ourselves.

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.

An analogy that I think might be helpful is keeping in touch with our aunt who lives across the country. We can think about FaceTiming with our aunt: I can see how she’s feeling, I can see her smile. But there are also some constraints. The line may be choppier. I may see that she has a sink full of dishes and feel bad that I’m not there to help her. Different media are going to afford us some things and they’re going to have some limitations. That’s the mindset we want to bring to teaching remotely.

With phonological awareness instruction, it can be difficult to hear children’s articulation, which really matters. But what are the affordances? Every child can type a response in the chat box, and then I’m hearing from every single child, and I’m seeing their response associated with their name. You can download some videoconference platforms that automatically transcribe the chat, so you can look back and use that as an assessment tool. In just that one case, we see a downside, but we also see some opportunities or affordances.

What will teachers need to unlearn to shift to a digital mindset?

Education tends to have a strong book bias. Depending on the circumstances in a remote context, it may be difficult to get books to kids and get them back from kids. It’s almost impossible for the teacher to ensure that every kid has a copy of the books that they’re reading or teaching from. The way to approach that is to broaden our idea about what constitutes a text that would be valuable for young children: online magazines and websites; having students write themselves and read each other’s texts; even texts that teachers write themselves. 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. There are of course online books from sites like textproject.org, too.

The absolute No. 1 effective remote teaching strategy would be “interaction.” What a lot of very well-intentioned people have done is to record read-aloud books for kids. But the problem is much of the value educationally in read-alouds lies in the interaction around the book, not in the book itself. Reading a book straight through for kids is not actually getting us what we need educationally. We don’t have the physical tool of our body to help keep kids engaged, so we even more so need that interaction around the text.

The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated inequities for public school students. How can teachers make sure remote learning is working for all students?

Getting information about technological resources and context at home is really important. How often does the internet work? What kind of internet do you have? How many people in the home will be on the internet at the same time? Who might be in the same room with your child when your child is [engaged in] school learning? Getting that information upfront can be really helpful so the teacher can plan accordingly. A follow-up phone call with a child whose internet dropped to hear what that child had to say about the book that they were reading—a little opportunity for instruction with that child—could be a workaround as well.

What should educators prioritize given the time constraints of remote learning?

All of these benchmarks in literacy are socially constructed. The way we decide what constitutes 3rd grade reading is some combination of community members and teachers at the state level get together with a bunch of test items and decide what percentage of those test items kids should get right at that age. 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. All aspects of literacy development are important. It’s definitely important for people to continue to read words and spell words. But it’s also really important for kids to continue to develop in their content knowledge—math and science and social studies, which research finds is actually highly related to children’s long-term reading success.


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