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The Dos and Don’ts of Virtual ELA Instruction

Zoom fatigue is real, but it has probably done very little to dampen a child’s preference for screen time over reading time. As research overwhelmingly shows, enthusiasm for reading drops off significantly after the elementary grades when students have fewer and fewer choices about the books they read in school. Before the pandemic, teachers experienced multiple barriers to getting student buy-in for literacy instruction; now, that challenge has intensified as long-term virtual learning is an increasingly likely reality in large portions of the country. To better understand how common pitfalls with ELA instruction can be mitigated in a virtual setting, here are some suggestions to counter outdated norms with best practices that work even when a teacher cannot physically stand in front of students.

Reading Skills

The best way to improve reading is to read, but not all families have the luxury of building extra reading time into the day. Among their chief concerns, parents express the worry that children will either begin to slide backward with their grasp of valuable reading skills, or in a less damaging but still significant scenario, that they will not build upon what they have already learned. To help students troubleshoot reading skills at a distance, do not force them to record the number of pages they read in a log or other tracking device. Reading logs are a disincentive for reading, and they do more harm than good by making reading a quantifiable chore rather than a joyful activity. Instead, invite students to talk about what they are reading. That can happen in a Zoom room, in a written chat, or even in just a few minutes of open-ended time during class to answer a simple but powerful question: “What are you reading these days?” We can learn a lot more from a conversation than we can from a log. As we become more comfortable with remote synchronous learning, using a variety of discourse protocols (whether written, verbal or visual) will renew discussions with students about what they like to read.

Writing Growth

A worried creative writing student once approached me after class. “I want to become a better writer,” he said, “but I don’t think this fun stuff we’re writing is helping me do that.” I gave him the same reassurance that I give to all students who express similar concerns: the more we write, the better we get. The connection between reading and writing skills is undeniable but often ignored. Just as students who like to read grow as readers, students who write more become accomplished writers. In a virtual classroom, we want to make writing as engaging as possible to allow organic progress to occur.  Think twice about assigning formulaic essays that analyze abstract or generic concepts, such as humanity’s endless struggle or whether the end of civility is nigh. Students have difficulty relating to these topics with a desired degree of engagement. Instead, gather student thoughts about relevant ideas that stem not just from conversation in your class, but from all their classes or even at home. For example, students who are nearing the end of secondary school might be concerned about their future amid a persistent pandemic, or younger kids might worry about when they can safely go to the amusement park again. Then, focus on these genuine areas of interest to guide students toward writing about what they consider important. Once students experience writing essays about topics that appeal to them, they will not only value the process more; they will also become better writers.

Make the Most of Synchronous Sessions

In this increasingly isolated existence, my heart soars when I visit with friends onscreen near and far. Nothing beats the human connections that occur when we visit with one another, even in a virtual setting. Working with kids in synchronous time is precious, and that is even more true in this alternate reality of the virtual world. Resist the urge to teach lessons with a heavy hand, as they may have been taught pre-pandemic. We all love the feeling of being in control, but too much teacher-centered practice results in disengaged students. To empower students, give them time to engage with both the content and with one another while making yourself available as a facilitator of learning. If students read choice texts outside of class time, use synchronous time to let them speak to one another and share their learning. If they are drafting a writing assignment, give them suggestions and tools (such as a list of desired writing elements) that will allow for meaningful peer review. In other words, think about using synchronous time to build a community of learners, not to lecture or share materials that could easily be shared outside of class during asynchronous sessions.

Less is More

One of my friends left the teaching profession because she couldn’t keep up with her own assignments; the workload of grading and planning just became too unwieldy for her. We often think that if we give students more content or take more time on something, we are doing a better job as teachers. That is simply not the case. Take advantage of time in the best way possible as we continue to teach remotely, but remember that less can be more when it comes to building ELA skills. Instead of thinking about teaching as a bell-to-bell experience, consider the value of students spending just 30 minutes a day on either reading or writing. If they engage with literacy work for just that small period of time they will make progress. In an educational setting that increasingly includes endless digital bells and whistles, simplifying is still one of the most effective instructional strategies we have in our arsenals.

Even while we work to take full advantage of ELA instruction in a virtual setting, we also have to consider that certain areas within literacy, such as foundational skills that students acquire in their early elementary years, may not benefit from the strategies outlined here. However, that does not mean that we cannot be flexible in our approach to learning. Teaching students of all ages to love reading, to express their ideas in writing, and to value language begins with the behavior we model as adults. If we frame reading and writing with joy rather than with a task-oriented approach, students will stand a far greater chance of loving it as much as we do ﹘even in a virtual setting.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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