Little kids can learn to read just fine in virtual classrooms

"We can actually teach kids online if we're using the correct methodology, keeping them engaged, and they're interacting socially with their peers and teachers," says Yael Weiss-Zruya. (Credit: Getty Images)

Children can develop key reading skills and learn to read in a virtual classroom with other students, a new study shows.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools nationwide, students of all ages—from high-schoolers in Advanced Placement classes to preschoolers getting the hang of the ABCs—shifted to remote learning on a screen.

“When I saw these 5-year-olds on Zoom laughing and encouraging each other to listen… I was amazed.”

While learning to read in an online setting may seem a tall order, researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) say their “Reading Camp” program demonstrates not only the effectiveness of the approach, but also the potential to reach larger numbers of students remotely, by necessity or by choice.

“Children are ready to learn to read at the age of 5. But the pandemic robbed children of the opportunity for in-person reading instruction. What we’ve shown here is that an online Reading Camp designed to promote learning socially works phenomenally well,” says faculty author Patricia Kuhl, a professor of speech and hearing sciences. “An online camp can be used all over the world by children anywhere, and that is truly exciting.”

The study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience details a two-week reading program, which teachers provided remotely to 83 5-year-olds beginning in fall 2020.

Learning to read involves a series of steps, including recognizing distinguished sounds in a language (phonological awareness), identifying the names of individual letters and how they sound (letter-sound knowledge), and decoding words and their meanings.

Child participants demonstrated learning specific reading skills, such as phonological awareness and letter-sound knowledge, when compared to a control group of children who did not receive the instruction.

In 2019, researchers offered a two-week reading summer camp to teach early literacy skills to pre-kindergarteners and measure brain activity before and after instruction. With the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, researchers decided to adapt the in-person Reading Camp into an online version over Zoom.

Ahead of the remote camp, researchers mailed parents a kit of materials, which included headphones, worksheets, and books, as well as Play-Doh, toys, and other fun items for use in the lessons. Children used colored plastic eggs from the kit, for example, to “vote” for the right answer in their virtual classroom, rather than raising a hand.

The Reading Camp grouped children into six-person classrooms, each with two instructors trained in the specific skills lessons. Sessions lasted three hours a day, with several breaks, short lessons broken up by activities, and ending with a story time. The classrooms were often broken into even smaller, three-student breakout rooms, each with a teacher to focus the lessons and games.

“This shows that we can actually teach kids online if we’re using the correct methodology, keeping them engaged, and they’re interacting socially with their peers and teachers,” says first author Yael Weiss-Zruya, a research scientist at I-LABS. “Combining all of this made it successful.”

Children in both the Reading Camp and control groups took several standardized and non-standardized tests to assess knowledge of letters, sounds, and words. The results showed that the Reading Camp participants improved in all of the reading skills measured, and their phonological awareness and knowledge of lowercase letters and sounds, in particular, more than the children in the control group.

“Frankly, I had my doubts about whether 5-year-olds could learn to read online without a live tutor. But when I saw these 5-year-olds on Zoom laughing and encouraging each other to listen and hold up the right color egg, I was amazed,” Kuhl says.

“Their social connections to each other were obvious, and their learning was incredible. They called each other by name and seemed very eager to see each other on the screen.”

Researchers plan to hold additional online reading camps, and to add brain scans prior to and after the camps to evaluate how learning to read affects brain development.

The Bezos Family Foundation, the Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Petunia Charitable Fund funded the work.

Source: University of Washington