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5 Tips to Engage Struggling Readers in Remote Learning

Categories: Assistive Technology, Curriculum & Access, Education & Teaching

by Terrie Noland, C.A.L.P, VP of Educator Leadership and Learning

As educators, we know that the journey for struggling readers is difficult under the best of circumstances. Throw in a pandemic that disrupts daily routines and shifts in-person classes to remote learning into the mix and that journey becomes even tougher.

To figure out how to help these vulnerable students succeed, I turned to three talented reading specialists: Katherine Hoover, a middle school reading teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia; Betsy McGowan, a reading specialist and 7th grade social studies special education teacher at Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School in New York; and Nelda Reyes, an intervention and dyslexia teacher at San Marco CISD in Texas. Here’s the advice they shared:

1. Build connections with students and parents

Developing relationships in this era of social distancing is hard but is well worth the effort. Teachers know first hand how important social emotional connections are, especially for struggling students.

“I don't normally make phone calls during the school year but I called all of the students on my caseload and it was so cool,” Katherine explained. “I ended up chatting with them for so long and I think that's one thing to remember if we get back to in-person school. By building those relationships, I felt comfortable talking to the families and talking to my students.”

Nelda agreed and shared a story about a first grade boy who gave her a tour of his family’s garden via Zoom. “They're opening their homes to us and letting us in to see their dogs, their pets, and talk to their siblings,” she said. “That's one of the greatest things. Another is the communication with parents. I have had great communication with parents due to this pandemic.”

2. Use all available contacts to reach non-responsive students

When schools closed abruptly last spring, teachers across the country worried about losing contact with their most vulnerable students. Educators have become detectives, using whatever contacts they have, to locate their students and make sure they are safe.

“We are blessed to have an emergency contact system where we've got mother, father, grandfather and all these contacts,” said Nelda. “So if I can't contact that first listing, I'm calling Grandma, I'm calling anybody who's on that contact list.”

Katherine enlists her middle school students’ help to check on their peers. “One time I had a student not show up so I said to one of her friends, ‘You need to call McKenzie right now and tell her to log on.’ So she called her during our class and got her to join.”

3. Leverage technology to level the playing field

Betsy has several tips on how to use technology to improve equity and accessibility for struggling readers. First, she teaches all her students how to use the speech-to-text feature on their mobile devices. Some of her students were familiar with the feature but haven’t had the opportunity to practice using it because they didn’t use computers that much in the classroom. She is excited to see her special education students using the functionality for note taking, allowing them to keep up with grade-level content and participate in class discussions.

Betsy also believes in giving students a choice of format to demonstrate their content mastery. For example, some of her students developed a podcast about George Washington’s chef. “It was such a hit with the kids,” she said. “They loved exploring a text in a different format. That was one of our best lessons we've done and it was great because it provided an audio format to all the students in the grade.”

4. Model technology to empower students

To make the most of technology, it needs to be accessible to all students whether they are in the classroom or at home. Since some students have more access to technology than others, Betsy has gone back to basics with modeling. She explained, “Even if it's something like copy and paste, there's actually a lot to that. Kids who have computers and more tech in their households know it and we can assume that they know it. But not everyone does. And if you tell a kid to copy and paste the notes as an accommodation, and you don't teach them how to do it with explicit modeling, then that actually might compound the inequities.”

Larger school districts can develop self-service resources to help students work independently. “Our Assistive Technology Services department made a lot of videos,” Katherine explained.“So I've been posting them to my Blackboard and Google Classroom to remind my students what they already have access to help themselves at home.”

5. Give students access to high quality content

With schools and libraries closed, it may be hard for struggling readers to find appropriate reading material in user friendly formats. And without grade-level content, the achievement gap grows.

To address that concern, Betsy’s school turned to the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. “We are so glad that now everyone can access a full library of books. It solved the problem for us. And the kids have been using it. Parents have expressed that they're really appreciative of it and it's definitely an equity tool at this time.”

Nelda’s school uses the same solution. “It's just amazing and it's always been a game changer for our kids.” She added that access to historical documents has also been helpful, “You can access the Declaration of Independence and that is so critical for our kids in middle school and high school.”

To help you remember these 5 tips, download our infographic. And if you have tips to share on how you are engaging struggling readers remotely, please put them in the comments box below. We’d love to hear from you!