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SANTA FE, N.M. – When Juan Pablo entered third grade, he was not yet reading in English. He was beginning to lose confidence in his abilities and worried about being held back.

His teacher referred him to Reading Quest, the nonprofit I run, where he could receive free, weekly personalized tutoring. After just a few months, Juan Pablo grew one full grade level in reading. He later attended our Reading Is Magic summer camp and grew another full grade level in reading in just two weeks.

By last spring, Juan Pablo could read the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. His confidence grew along with his test scores in both Spanish and English. He played the king in our Readers Theater Summer Camp and was a strong leader, despite sometimes sketchy internet service.

Related: What parents need to know about the research on how kids learn to read

Juan Pablo of Sante Fe, with his tutor Eli Feliciano, made great strides in reading during the spring and summer. Credit: Reading Quest

Juan Pablo’s success story comes at a time of great concern about how struggling readers will get the help they need during the coronavirus era. Unequal access to quality Wi-Fi and lack of technological devices make it difficult for teachers to serve their students online, especially beginning and struggling readers who need extra attention.

At Reading Quest, 98 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch,  and 85 percent are native Spanish speakers. Sixty-seven percent of children in our area are not reading proficiently at grade level. Some have learning disabilities. Our team of 11 adults and 22 teen tutors have helped our students make remarkable gains, even with online learning replacing face-to-face instruction.

Related: Four things you need to know about the new reading wars

With so much of teaching now online, teachers everywhere are wondering how we can best support struggling readers. Here are some tips I compiled that can work with online teaching, based on 40 years of experience in the United States and throughout the world.

  • Make reading come alive. Teaching the rules of reading according to the science of reading acquisition might not seem like much fun, but by integrating American Sign Language, songs, Readers Theater, games, videos and engaging decodable books into the mix, it can all come alive. There are excellent decodable books out there, such as those by Nora Gaydos.
  • Teach phonics with compassion.  Making phonics instruction fun, engaging and effective for all children can be challenging, especially online. Having compassion for ourselves and remembering that this is new for all of us can be a game changer – for students and teachers alike. We need to be kind and gentle with ourselves; then it’s much easier to remember to feel compassion for that student who is not paying attention or who might be too anxious to participate in an online class.
  • Choose books wisely. Remember the five-finger rule: If a child struggles with five or more words on a page, that book might be too hard for the child to read alone. But it might be a wonderful read-aloud book. Reading aloud at any age is a powerful way to build vocabulary, comprehension and knowledge. Read with expression or take turns and see what happens. When children find a book they are interested in, let them read it – even if it’s the 35th book about dinosaurs this year, or yet another book by John Green. Let your middle school student read “Dog Man” books all day long if it hooks the student on reading. Introduce your teens to books like “The Stars Beneath Our Feet”  and the audiobook of “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” read by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Graphic novels are also powerful tools for getting kids, especially reluctant middle schoolers, into the reading habit. “The Breakaways,” the Narwhal and Jelly series, “Black Panther,” Raina Telgemeier’s books and the “Amulet” series are a few. Look for books that honor and celebrate your child’s culture and language but don’t push it. Let the child choose. Also, check out Epic, which has thousands of books for readers at all levels free of charge for teachers and students, including audiobooks and “read-to-me” books. 
  • Use games. It’s striking that hardly any board games are designed to teach reading. However, almostany board game can be transformed into a reading game simply by showing a word card to the student with each spin of the die.  Jenga can become a reading game if you write words on both sides of each block. Fortnite Monopoly or Candyland games can be an opportunity to practice reading if you include word cards with each roll of the dice.
  • Go online.  Use digital board games with digital word cards for small reading groups, or play chess and checkers and other free games at Toytheater.com.  It’s also easy on Zoom or Google Meet to type in the words you want students to read when it’s their turn, or hold up a small whiteboard. Playing online Dungeons & Dragons, or writing stories, songs, raps and poems, can be powerfully healing and connecting. Check out Write the World, 826 National, Word Art and Storyboard That. Also, Models of Excellence has the largest collection of inspiring, high-quality student work I’ve ever seen.
  • Take virtual trips. For younger students, virtual field trips to zoos, museums and aquariums can spark imaginations and curiosity. Visit National Geographic Kids and check out the T-Rex Hangman-style game; complete a Funny Fill-In with your class (similar to Mad Libs) and let students choose which Personality Quizzes they want to take. Your students will be having so much fun that they will forget they are doing something they might ordinarily avoid.
  • Use apps and online reading programs. Check out Red Apple Reading for beginning readers; the Reading Raven app; LetterSchool for children learning how to write their letters; and BookNook. There are a lot of expensive products out there, but we have found these to be free or low-cost, and especially effective for our readers. Parents report that their children enjoy them as well.
  • Care for yourself and your students. Students who struggle with reading need warm, supportive, engaging interactions with a caring adult who understands the way children acquire the skills of reading. All students, regardless of their home situations or learning and language differences, can make remarkable progress.

As teachers, we all know the importance of warm, caring human interaction. With extra effort, support and some new resources, we can still provide it when teaching online.

Rayna Dineen is executive director of Reading Quest. She founded an EL Education pre-K-8 school in Santa Fe (Santa Fe School for the Arts & Sciences),  where she served as teacher and principal for 13 years and where Reading Is Magic and Reading Quest began in 2012. 

This story about reading instruction was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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