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How to Teach Reading to Students Online

Since the pandemic of 2020, one of the most dramatic system-wide changes has occurred in education. For the first time in history, most children were introduced to learning online for the first time.

Teachers had to quickly adapt and design digital reading instruction strategies. This new paradigm forced educators to think outside the box in how to reach their students. The result was a new form of teaching students reading through online tools.

Here are a few of the ways educators learned from the experience. Read on to discover some of the strategies and tools educators use to teach reading online. 

The First Hurdle: Building a Community Through Read-Alouds

Educators are great at reading their students. They pick up on subtle microexpressions. It helps them adapt their lessons for what their students need. In a virtual reading classroom, this becomes more challenging.

In a typical classroom, teachers can read a student’s expressions for understanding. Online, that same expression could mean many things. 

A blank stare could be evidence of struggle with content or technology issues. Poor eye contact could be evidence of feeling lost or becoming distracted by phones. Refusing to communicate could be evidence of confusion or not hearing the teacher. 

Read-alouds are essential for building a community in the virtual reading classroom. But it also has many other benefits to reading instruction, including: 

  • Builds background knowledge
  • Builds knowledge of the sophisticated written language
  • Models reading fluency
  • Practice speaking and listening skills
  • Staying more connected

Students of all ages love to listen to read-alouds. It allows them to learn to: 

  • Listen with intent 
  • Respond to questioning 
  • Communicate understanding
  • Take educational risks 
  • Provide evidence to back up a point

These skills are key to showing understanding of the content. Additionally, these skills also build a collaborative community of learners.

The Structure of a Virtual Read-Aloud

Teachers of all grades use read-alouds to introduce new skills and content. Educators plan lessons based on a particular standard or skill. They use specific texts to reinforce the skill. 

Here is the typical structure of a whole group virtual reading lesson: 


The mini-lesson serves as the hook. It gets students excited about the new material. A mini-lesson is short, usually no longer than 15 minutes long. It is a brief introduction of the lesson. 

During the mini-lesson, teachers: 

  • Activate prior knowledge
  • Connect the new skill to an older skill (if applicable)
  • Present the agenda for the lesson
  • Model the skill

Many educators use questioning during a read-aloud to practice the skill. 

Practice The Skill Together Through a Read-Aloud

Next, the class will practice the skill during the read-aloud. The skill may identify character traits, sequencing events, or compare and contrast characters. 

After the read-aloud, the class reviews the skill. The class may complete a graphic organizer. The teacher may also sum up the skill on an anchor chart presented on a Google Slide. That helps students show their knowledge. 

Showing What You Know

Once they know the skill, it’s time for students to work in groups or on their own to show their knowledge. 

Teachers may have: 

  • Students work together in break-out rooms
  • Students work alone through an assignment
  • Students use tools to assess their knowledge

Younger students may use a tool like Flipgrid to record a video answering a question. They may also take a picture of their work. Many teachers also use Google Forms or Google Slides as a way to assess knowledge.  

Teaching Emerging and Struggling Readers in the Virtual Reading Classroom

Kindergarten through second grade are crucial years for building reading strategies. The pandemic forced students to learn reading strategies online.

Home experiences create a wide chasm in reading abilities for kids in these grades. While some students may have storytime nightly, others may not even have books at home. 

Regardless of their reading experience, all young readers need phonological awareness

Model of processes of phonological awareness from the University of Nebraska Student Engagement Project.
Source: University of Nebraska Student Engagement Project

There are about 40 sounds in the English language. Chunking similar sounds make teaching advanced phonics more manageable.

Here is a breakdown of the sounds from reading simplified

These 40 sounds grouped together provide a framework for phonics instruction. Students learn one sound each week, then review it the next week. These concepts get recycled until students show mastery. 

Phonological awareness is often disguised as “word work” in a small reading group. It’s where students will play with words to decode them. Decoding means to sound out a word. 

Small-Group Reading

Small group reading consists of three components: 

  1. Re-reading for fluency. 
  2. Word work, usually one to two activities. 
  3. Guided oral reading of a new text. 

Here’s how it looks in a virtual reading classroom. 

Re-Reading for Fluency

A group of four to five students will come together with the teacher on Zoom or Google Meet. Together, they will take listening to and then re-reading a text. 

The practice of re-reading something helps build reading fluency. Many teachers use leveled stories from Raz Kids

These stories are short, age-appropriate, and easy to present online. You can even assign students books to read aloud for a fluency score. That makes them great for assessment and reading fluency practice. 

Word Work

Kids build foundational decoding skills by playing with words. Google slides are a great way to set up word work. It makes it easy for kids to manipulate a series of letters to create words. 

There are three basic activities to choose from: 

  1. Build it/Switch it
  2. Read it
  3. Sort it

The teacher usually picks two activities from the list above. Let’s go into the structure of each activity. 

Build It or Switch It

This activity is set up by the teacher beforehand on Google Slides. Let’s say they are working with the /oa/ sound. They may build words like boat, coat, soak, float, etc.

First students will sound out the word, thinking about each sound in the word. Then they will put it together. If working on the word boat, it may sound like buh oa t, boat. 

Then they would switch it to make another word, like coat. You may hear kids say cuh oa t, coat as they switch it. 

Read It

Using Google slides, a teacher would put up a short word to read. The teacher may use a word that has a blend in it, such as in our world float from above. 

When we read it, we know to blend /fl/ together. “Read It” teaches this skill. To reinforce blending the /fl/ the teacher would only show part of the word then reveal the rest. They may start with /fl/ first then add in float. 

Sort It

Kids sort words on a list by sound. If using /oa/ students could sort words with the /oa/ sound. Word forms that create the /oa/ sound are: 

Here’s an example list: 

  • Boat
  • Toe
  • Note
  • Flow
  • So

Usually there would be a few items for each different word form that makes the /oa/ sound to sort them. Online teachers may use Google slides or worksheets like this.

Source: Reading Simplified

Teachers also may use a fourth practice called write it. This is a quick way to assess your student’s progress with phonics instruction. 

Guided Oral Reading

Students test their skills of decoding with guided oral reading. Teachers can create stories with sounds from word work in it. They could also have students hunt for word work sounds in another text. 

Guided oral reading helps children work on decoding strategies and reading fluency. 

Reading Support Outside of the Classroom

Sometimes reading strategies may not stick in a whole class setting or even a small group. In that case, one-to-one instruction is another great method to learn how to read. Many students use tutors to fill in the gaps they miss in school. 

Learning a New Language

Another time when tutoring is helpful is when a child or parent is trying to learn English as a second language. Many tutoring companies specialize in teaching English as a second language. 

Many students and adults need extra support when learning a new language. The benefits of having a one-to-one tutor is you can: 

  • Go at your own pace
  • Get individual training
  • Learn faster in some cases
  • Focus on deficits only

These are only a few advantages of hiring a tutor for English training

Learning to Read in a Virtual Reading Classroom

Learning to read in a virtual classroom is possible. It takes thoughtful planning and good instructional practices. 

If your son or daughter needs extra reading support, TutorOcean can help. We help students from emerging readers all the way up to college prep. 

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