“When my kids read a whole novel, there’s just this feeling of accomplishment that they’re reading an entire book, from beginning to end.”
An upper elementary teacher from an East Boston public school recently shared her thinking with us about what’s important for her in an ELA curriculum. And we couldn’t agree more.
We believe that high-quality ELA curriculum is built around complex, authentic texts, and that putting real books in the hands of students should be a priority in any school year. But we know that the conditions of this school year, with remote learning being more rule than exception, has made this goal even more complicated.
This year, we see an ever-widening spectrum of approaches to addressing the challenge of providing reading materials to students, including:
- Assigning short, disconnected screen-based selections that students can read or have read to them
- Reading core texts aloud to students, or providing access to audio books
- Scanning and sharing sections of a core text
- Sharing access to the full eBook of a core text
- Giving students access to a real copy of a core text
The final option—providing each student with their own copy of a text—is one that we always advocate for, but especially under these conditions of remote learning.
Why are real texts important in a period of remote learning?
An alternative to more screen time
It’s no secret that students’ attention spans for virtual lessons is a major challenge. Learning from a screen for the equivalent of a full school day can be mentally and emotionally draining for students. Real texts offer the option to shift the focus to the printed page and offer variety in the course of the school day.
Additionally, the evidence continues to mount for the boost to reading comprehension that comes from reading on paper compared to reading from a screen. While the bells and whistles available in some reading applications may offer different kinds of supports for comprehension, there’s a strong argument to be made for the much older technology of the printed page.
A throughline from the traditional classroom
Anything that we can offer to our students that makes learning at home feel more like learning in a classroom seems like a valuable investment this year. While purchasing or distributing books to students may be challenging, equipping each of your students with a copy of the book for an upcoming unit might be a lifeline that they need to make school feel a little more normal in a year that’s anything but.
When a teacher is working with a high-quality ELA curriculum, whole texts that allow students to engage deeply with a knowledge-building topic can also provide continuity from day to day and week to week. And as the teacher at the beginning of this post mentioned, students can feel a well-deserved sense of accomplishment when they complete a whole book.
Providing audio books or reading aloud to students are certainly options for keeping students focused on whole texts, but we agree with Timothy Shanahan’s recent warnings about practices like round robin reading, which “can fill the Zoom session easily and keep kids on task, without really helping them learn.” His recommendations for more focus on silent reading comprehension would be well supported by making sure that students have their text easily at hand.
A way to encourage authentic, joyful reading experiences
If we are to create voracious independent readers, we should be looking for every opportunity to give students authentic experiences of reading both shared class texts and independent reading selections. Providing students with access to books at home means that they can untether from the computer during the day, find a comfortable spot, and get lost in a book. The time they spend reading a range of texts will help build their vocabulary, content knowledge, and stamina.
By sending books into students’ homes, we create the added benefit of growing household libraries (if only temporarily) for families who might otherwise not have the resources to build them themselves. If your practice extends to providing copies of books that students get to keep, that would allow siblings, other family members, and neighbors to access these books, and have an exponentially positive effect on independent reading opportunities for your students and beyond.
How can you address challenges and find solutions?
Assess budget priorities
In a year when budgets are tighter than ever and expensive edtech solutions seem like they will solve our classroom challenges, the prospect of adding a line item for new books might seem like an impossibility.
Our philosophy has long been that all students need for an ELA lesson is the text they are reading and a blank page to write on. When teachers and students can’t be in the same room, lots of learning can still be facilitated with just a video conferencing connection and a simple LMS as long as students have books in hand.
If it is possible to resist the lure of new technology in favor of enough books for every student to have at home with them, we think that will be money well spent.
Understand the role curriculum plays
When teachers lack access to high-quality curriculum, they are expected to create their own lesson content while also shouldering the weight of adapting in myriad other ways to remote learning. It’s no wonder, then, that some of them turn to short, disconnected reading assignments available online because that’s simply the most manageable option right now.
But (in the spirit of alleviating budget pain) there are several free comprehensive curriculum options that place authentic, complex texts and high-quality resources at the center of units—Fishtank Learning, EL Education via Open Up Resources, and Core Knowledge Language Arts, to name a few. If the texts can be secured, then teachers can have the resources that they need to bring effective and engaging lessons to life for their students at any distance.
Get creative with book acquisition and distribution
If you want to make sure your students have texts in hand at home, but there is simply no budget available, it’s time to get creative.
Is there a PTA, local non-profit, or other partner that could help run a book drive or fundraiser specifically focused on purchasing books?
Want to give students access to other books to keep expanding their knowledge and stamina through independent reading? Consider liberating the texts currently locked up in empty classrooms and school libraries to provide students with books that align with their interests or a topic that they are currently studying. Find ways to coordinate safe pickups and drop offs of these books, perhaps through the same channels that free and reduced lunch pickup are happening.
And there are always public libraries, many of which are open or facilitating holds and pickups. Equipping your students and their families with information on how to navigate your local library’s system can help unlock this resource.
We know that the challenges of this school year may feel too numerous to count. Putting books in students’ hands certainly isn’t a panacea, but it is one tangible and valuable way to support students and teachers alike while they navigate the current learning landscape.