With the unexpected COVID-19 school closures, a lot of teachers had to quickly convert their classroom into a virtual learning environment. This isn’t an easy switch overnight, and yet, that’s what was required. Now that the initial shock has worn off and you're a couple of weeks into this transition, here are a few tips from Reading Horizons Reading and Dyslexia Specialist, Shantell Berrett Blake, for fine-tuning your virtual instruction. These tips were originally shared in the webinar, "Best Practices for Virtual Reading Instruction."
Tip 1: Set clear expectations
As you work to set expectations for this new dynamic, be sure to set one clearly for yourself: this is going to be a learning experience. It’s okay if not every idea or plan pans out. Let your students know this as well. Be an example of a growth mindset and don’t be afraid to admit to your students when something doesn't work as planned. Also, now that you have a few virtual lessons under your belt, help students see a vision for the rest of the school year. Let them and their parents know what you would like to see and how you want them to interact with you.
Tip 2: Think outside the classroom “box”
Your expertise from the classroom isn’t going to translate perfectly in a virtual setting. Let go of the idea that you're going to be able to recreate your traditional classroom online. This new dynamic is not going to look or function like the classroom you’ve worked hard to master. We have to change and adjust how we approach teaching in a virtual classroom. Be honest with yourself. Evaluate what you can and cannot bring from your old dynamic. Think of lessons as an experiment, knowing that some will fail. Don’t always try and think in terms of the traditional classroom. Think of what you do have available in this new setting, and create solutions with the tools that are available online.
Tip 3: Drop the perceived difficulty
In the classroom, it's important that we keep things simple and straightforward so our students don’t check out. This is also important in a virtual setting. However, there’s an added dimension to this rule when moving things virtual: online tools and technologies. Technology can be a huge asset, but it can also be frustrating. If the tools we choose to use are too complex or difficult for parents and students to use, it's easy for them to lose interest. One of the biggest factors in maintaining motivation is perceived difficulty. If a student or parent can’t handle the complexity of what is expected from them, they will likely get demotivated. Use simple platforms that are realistic and easy for students and parents to use. And, as always, be sure directions for assignments and projects are very clear and straightforward.
Tip 4: Give more options
Although you might feel constrained in a virtual setting, it is still important for students to get variety and have options in their learning. It’s also easy to revert to a set template for every lesson when we’re asked to make a sudden change or to adapt quickly. But not every student will respond well to the same things. Take some time to collaborate with other teachers or find examples online to get ideas to add some diversity to your lessons. Another way to provide variety is to give students multiple options to choose from for assignments or projects.
Tip 5: Consistent communication
Virtual interaction can make us feel both connected yet isolated. Hearing your voice regularly can help your students feel a sense of familiarity and connection. Consider using the number three rule. If a student hasn’t engaged with you by the third virtual activity that was presented or offered, then reach out to the student (or parent) with a phone call to check-in. Find out if there’s something that is preventing them from completing or accessing instructional material.
Tip 6: Set challenging but attainable goals
When we are asked to make a sudden and dramatic change, it’s natural to go into survival mode and just get from day-to-day. However, not having a bigger picture or a sense of deliberate action can also make it hard to stay engaged. That’s why it’s important to keep a vision for your classroom and zoom out to the bigger picture. Take time to reflect on the bigger picture and purpose of your students' education. Then work to communicate those reflections to your students. Try and help them see the purpose of every lesson, every day, and every week and how it all builds up to their bigger goals.
Tip 7: Frequently check for student understanding
Engagement can be the most difficult part of virtual lessons. When we can’t see our students and how they’re reacting to what we’re teaching, it's hard to gauge their level of engagement. We need feedback if we want to keep our students engaged. In fact, when teaching in a virtual setting, you need more feedback than you would in your regular classroom. It’s important to get your students familiar and comfortable with different interactions on virtual platforms. Whether it’s virtually raising your hand, responding with a mic to questions, using polls, or having students type in chat—you need to get continuous feedback and responses from your students to gauge understanding and engagement.
Tip 8: Solicit specific and regular interaction
Even though you can’t see your students, if you call on specific students during your regular instruction, call on a student to respond during your virtual instruction. This will help keep your students alert and will help them get comfortable responding to you through the screen.
Tip 9: Guided work breaks
Students are used to structure in their schooling. A virtual classroom can throw students out of their groove. Be sure to include as much of your regular classroom structure as possible. And, most importantly, schedule time for recess and breaks.
Tip 10: Use break-out rooms for small groups
Engagement is hard for large groups; this is even more true in a large virtual setting. Luckily, you can still create classroom rotations and small group instruction online. Use Zoom to set up smaller group lessons. Zoom allows you to set up break-out rooms so your students can collaborate together in small groups while you hop from group to group virtually. Another option for creating small groups and classroom rotations is to utilize a combination of instructional tools: pre-recorded lessons, instructional software, and live instruction. This way, you can have a group of students using each tool for a period of time and then have them rotate through each option. Students all receive live instruction from you, but they will also continue to learn while you respond to your other students' needs.
Tip 11: Provide Ample Praise
The power of praise is high and well-documented in research. Praise increases our skill and productivity. Remember this during virtual lessons. Also, be sure to praise effort, not scores or “natural ability,” to encourage your students to develop a growth mindset. By focusing on praising your students (and their parents), you will see an increase in both performance and engagement.
Tip 12: Maintain instructional design
Research-based practices are still important in a virtual setting. With reading, research points to a structured literacy approach. The diagram below shows the skills that our students need to learn (inner circle) and the way those skills need to be taught (outer circle). As much as possible, we need to maintain these research-based principles in our virtual classrooms.
Tip 13: Utilize the gradual release of responsibility model
The gradual release of responsibility model is a great practice for the traditional and virtual classroom. In this approach, we first show our students a skill (“I do”), then we practice the skill with our students (“we do”), and then we have our students practice the skill on their own (“you do”). In virtual classrooms, the “we do” portion of this model can easily fall out. That is why it is important for us to explore our options and use small group instruction to maintain this important component.
Check out Reading Horizons free virtual lessons for examples of how to apply this model in a virtual setting.
Tip 14: Monitor Progress
Lastly, it is important to continue to monitor student progress. To learn more about how this looks in a virtual classroom, watch our webinar titled: “How to Progress Monitor Academics and Goals in a Virtual Setting.”
Learn how Reading Horizons elementary reading software and reading intervention software can provide your students with research-based structured literacy instruction and monitor their progress in a virtual learning environment.