Elementary students may struggle with developing reading skills in an online classroom. These tips can maximize your time together.

In this time of virtual and hybrid learning, navigating the intricacies of distance learning can be tricky, especially when it comes to phonics. Research shows that time on task with a teacher has the most impact on reading proficiency. But how do we get the most out of our limited time in front of students? Although reading instruction can be more challenging online, here are some strategies to make it work.

Try to keep groups small to build and maintain strong, positive relationships while providing targeted instruction. Consider starting each lesson with a check-in to welcome children into a virtual space and to build and reestablish an inclusive community.

This will also increase children’s motivation for learning and sharing. Give students a chance to talk out things they may be carrying in their head or heart by asking them to identify how they feel, posing fun questions on Padlet like “What is your favorite snack?” or encouraging students to share a rose and a thorn. Check out these social and emotional templates from Pear Deck to get started.

Direct instruction is an opportunity to teach new concepts and explicitly model a target skill or strategy. Direct instruction incorporates the Gradual Release of Responsibility model, and in phonics this requires teacher-led explicit instruction. In virtual instruction, try using video demonstrations to model new concepts; check out Screencastify to create videos of teacher modeling. Also, incorporate visuals. In phonics it’s helpful to have key words and pictures to help children remember specific phoneme-grapheme relationships.

Lastly, try out whiteboard extensions like Jamboard for live small group instruction as a way to model using the kind of manipulatives you’d use in your classroom modeling. For example, if you’re modeling phonics, you can use the sticky note feature to create letter tiles.

In synchronous learning, guided practice is an opportunity for teacher observation and feedback. Use this time to give students the chance to practice the skill you taught during your teacher-led direct instruction while providing corrective feedback on their progress.

Children need opportunities to actively construct and deconstruct words, and there are many online tools to help this process. For example, children can practice writing words with the word pattern you modeled using a whiteboard extension or good old pen and paper. You can use grapheme cards, which are also available online, to practice blending and letter-sound correspondence. The University of Florida Literacy Institute has lots of resources to support virtual literacy instruction, including blending slide templates, word mats, and manipulative letters.

Students can also practice decoding and encoding using letter cards with online word building. In Zoom, you can even let students share their screen so they can teach or be the leader. Use this guided practice time to give students multiple opportunities to try out the new concept in real time alongside corrective feedback to solidify their learning.

Once a skill has been modeled and practiced, students need opportunities to apply their new knowledge. One way to do this is by having students read a connected text—like a short story, rather than vocabulary lists—that includes the word pattern they learned. Drop a link to a Google doc with texts for students to read on their own. Then you can listen to children read in breakout rooms.

As you listen, look for specific reading strategies that you want to support. For example, are students looking at the first letter when sounding out tricky words? Are they able to slide through each sound, or are they still sounding out each letter?

Jot down notes on what reading behaviors you notice or want to support in future classes. This is another opportunity to provide students with feedback and to be responsive in future lessons.

Prepare your technology in advance: Practice rehearsing using the screen share and switching among windows for items you intend to display. Test your audio; I also recommend getting headphones or a microphone headset to reduce background sounds.

Prepare your space: Consider the lighting in your room and how you can utilize your background as a learning space. You can hang anchor charts or visual supports behind you, and remember to remove any distracting items from your background.

Avoid making your reading sessions too long: I usually include a break every 15 to 20 minutes. Movement breaks work well—it can be as simple as inviting students to stand up and stretch or join you in a chant and cheer. GoNoodle has videos and games to get children moving.

Online reading instruction can be tough, but time on task with explicit instruction is key to student growth. Implementing these practices will help your students get the most out of your learning time together.