In several ways, the public health crisis has hampered students' exposure to reading and literacy. Students learning remotely may have fewer opportunities to hold books in their hands and practice turning pages left to right. Those learning in-person are finding classroom bookshelves empty or limited due to safety protocols.
But in other ways, the pandemic is allowing educators to be more purposeful and resourceful when it comes to promoting literacy, reading experts say.
“I have met some Herculean teachers working in unbelievably grim settings who have really pulled it out and made sure that their kids were getting projected screens with literature and having those rich conversations on Zoom, which is no small thing to master by the way,” said Elizabeth Bassford, associate vice president for Content and Implementation at Curriculum Associates.
Immersing students in rich text, engaging them in conversations about a book’s characters, plot and scenery, and creating positive associations with books can occur in any learning format, Bassford said. So can scaffolding strategies to help struggling readers, she added.
“I think our teachers, particularly in that realm, who are deeply, deeply committed to making sure kids get what they need, worked really hard to be able to transfer everything they do in the classroom as best as they could to this new medium,” Bassford said.
The abundance of digital reading content and the sharing of best practices spurred by the pandemic has helped literacy specialists and educators, Bassford said.
Cindy Jiban, principal academic lead for Early Learning Content Design at NWEA, said there are efforts by a lot of teachers of younger students to move away from didactic and dry literacy instructional approaches to more engaging lessons that use body movements and sounds to demonstrate reading patterns, even in online formats.
Jiban also said teachers are emphasizing reading fluency and speech by having students read books aloud to their pets or create videos of themselves reading aloud with funny voices and expressive movements.
Parents who are observing their children’s online lessons are also absorbing reading strategies teachers are using virtually. That modeling can help parents reinforce those approaches at home, Jiban said.
Although there’s been creativity in reading instruction during the pandemic, both Bassford and Jiban are concerned about drops in overall student enrollment, attendance and engagement, as well as the difficulty of having organically flowing conversations about texts while in online learning formats.
“There are kids who are just not really present for remote learning very much,” Jiban said. “And we hear also that when kids are officially present, they're often not on camera and they're muted so essentially still not very present.”
Additionally, a recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research found that in a survey of parents of children ages 3 to 5 not yet in kindergarten, parents are reading less frequently to their young children now than before the pandemic, likely because of greater responsibilities and stress as a result of the pandemic and exhaustion from childcare.
Teacher and football hero inspire reading
The virtual guest reader Tuesday at Millard Public Schools in Omaha, Nebraska, was a hometown hero, and the more than 500 K-5th grade elementary students — some of whom were in-person in school buildings wearing masks as others watched from computers at home — listened patiently.
The book, “Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss, was chosen by the reader for its themes on the importance of being nonjudgmental and accepting of others' differences, the reader said. (Six other Dr. Seuss books will no longer be printed or licensed because of hurtful portrayals of people, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced Tuesday.)
Reading to the class was Harrison Phillips, a 6-foot-3, 306 lb. defensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills. Phillips attended Millard Public Schools and has been recognized for his philanthropic work in Omaha and the Buffalo region. Phillips met with the class as part of Tackle Reading Day, a national event supported by the National Football League and NFL alumni. This year, NFL players and alumni read virtually to more than 100 elementary schools.
It was one of teacher Tom Whisinnand's former 4th-grade students at Reagan Elementary School who set in motion Phillips' visit with the students.
Several years ago, the student in question was reluctant to practice reading. Whisinnand, whose students call him Mr. Whiz, knew the student loved football. He had also heard Phillips liked the “Horrible Harry” reading series when he was a child, leading to his player nickname Horrible Harry.
So Whisinnand, who didn’t know Phillips, reached out to the football player via Twitter with a request to make a short message to encourage the student to read. Two days later, Phillips sent back a video saying the Horrible Harry books were his favorite, and that he thought the student would like them too, according to Whisinnand.
“The look on this child's face was just priceless,” Whisinnand said. “You know that you had made an impact right away because the look on this child's face was just — I can't even put into words, it is so magnificent.”
Whisinnand, who uses experiential learning techniques, said he instills in his students that reading is not just a passive activity. For example, his class two years ago was reading about how the state fruit of Florida is an orange. That inspired the class, which was also studying Nebraska history and government, to research whether Nebraska had an official state vegetable, which it did not. The students wrote persuasive essays to a state legislator, who then introduced a bill to designate corn as the state vegetable. The bill was eventually postponed.
In another example, Whisinnand, who was the winner of the first National University System Sanford Teacher Award in 2019, received a Facebook message last year from a teacher in India who was interested in having their classes collaborate. The two classes on different sides of the globe had a joint Zoom call, and Whisinnand’s students sent their Indian peers self-created books to analyze and critique.
“So my students now are internationally published authors is what I like to say,” Whisinnand said.
One of his students, Danica Schroer, 9, said she wrote a story about an Australian shepherd to share with the students in India. She said the only thing difficult about reading during the pandemic is when she wants to show her friends a favorite passage in a book, she can’t pass the book to her friend. Other than that, reading hasn’t changed much for her, said Danica, whose favorite books are the “Little Women” series.
Another student, Bennett Carlson, 9, said he really enjoys the class's small group reading sessions and when students use virtual reality headsets to take virtual field trips.
During the pandemic, Whisinnand has made efforts to meet individually with his students and families to discuss each student’s strengths and needs. It has been more difficult, however, to have students meet in smaller reading groups both socially distanced in-person and online. School library books also have to undergo a quarantine period before being checked out again, he said.
But the pandemic has not changed the teacher’s approach of inspiring students to read.
“Getting excited about reading, getting kids excited to write and explore words and explore literacy, that, that didn't change,” Whisinnand said. “Getting kids to read something that they're interested in whether that be nonfiction or whether that be a graphic novel, or whether that be a book by a well-known author, that didn't change. So I think there's some things that might have changed instruction, but I think there's a lot of things that did remain the same.”