4 Ways to Align Reading Instruction to a Remote Learning Environment

Reading remote learning

Remote learning means teachers have to get creative to ensure their students make progress in reading. The context in which they are teaching has changed, but the underlying principles of learning have not.

Aligning assessment, instruction, and practice to both the brain’s cognitive processes and the individual learner’s strengths, needs, and context is still central in online instruction. Here are some areas to target.

1. Manage Attention to Maximize Learning

Attention is the cognitive process of selectively focusing on something. Nothing can be learned without first attending to it, but people’s minds naturally wander 30–50% of the time! For any subject, students need to focus during instruction to avoid missing out on essential information.

When it comes to reading, being able to selectively focus on one thing and suppress irrelevant information is thought to enable development of the brain structures required for decoding and recognizing words. The combination of not having an in-person teacher, the rabbit hole that is the internet, and the unavoidable distractions that come from learning away from school means teachers need to focus even more on managing their students’ attention for remote learning.

When Teaching Online

For Independent Practice

  • Focus attention by stating learning objectives at the beginning of each lesson.
  • Bring distracted students back with an interactive routine like “clap once if you hear me.”
  • Use multisensory techniques to keep students engaged, like having students tap out syllables or make letter shapes with their hands as they say the letter names.
  • Less is more when it comes to focusing: target one or two skills at a time.
  • Keep the design of materials simple—too much visual stimulation is distracting.
  • Target practice to the right level, based on regular assessment; minds wander more with content that is too easy or too hard.
  • Divide longer assignments into shorter sections with stretch breaks so students can get the wiggles out and consolidate what they’ve learned.

2. Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Retention and Automaticity

Retrieval practice—the simple act of recalling what you’ve learned—makes learning active rather than passive and increases retention. When learning to read, students must develop foundational word reading skills to automaticity so that when they read connected text, their cognitive load shifts away from figuring out what the words say to figuring out what the text means. The more students retrieve a piece of information like a letter name or a letter-sound combination, the more automatic that retrieval becomes. The key to successful retrieval practice is spacing it out over multiple shorter sessions rather than one longer session: having a little time to “forget” in between sessions actually deepens learning and strengthens the memory when the information is encountered again.

When Teaching Online

For Independent Practice

  • Immediately after introducing new information, have students retrieve it chorally—after teaching the grapheme “ph,” for example, ask students what sound it makes.
  • Ask questions throughout your lesson and have students hold paper signs with their answers up to their webcams.
  • Make retrieval sessions short but frequent to enhance retention.
  • Have students retrieve both new and older content—activating what students learned in previous lessons strengthens it within long-term memory.
  • Use technology-based reading programs and games to give students individual opportunities for retrieval without having to wait for their classmates to respond.

3. Provide Feedback to Course-Correct

Retrieval practice is even more effective when students are given feedback on their responses. Giving informative feedback—not just right or wrong, but also why—addresses underlying misconceptions directly. “Practice makes permanent,” so students need to practice accurate decoding and comprehension monitoring to develop permanent, effective reading habits. Feedback is one of the top 10 influences on reading achievement, but it only works if it is received. Students need to understand that mistakes are not only okay but also that they are welcomed opportunities for learning, and that the feedback is about performance on the task, not an evaluation of learners themselves.

When Teaching Online

For Independent Practice

  • Teach students that errors are essential to learning, so feedback is seen as helpful rather than punitive.
  • Give feedback as soon as possible, explaining both why an incorrect answer is wrong and why the correct answer is right.
  • Schedule individual or small-group sessions to provide more targeted feedback to striving readers without the social pressure of the whole class observing.
  • Ask students or their caregivers to send you photographs of their work so you can provide feedback on what they are doing well, what they can work on, and how.
  • Use audio memos to provide feedback to students who can’t read yet.
  • Leverage intelligent tutoring systems to provide immediate corrective feedback as students are reading independently.

4. Address Individual Variability with Differentiation

Students learn to read at different rates, and the greatest learning gains happen when teachers target the skills students need to work on—skills that are just above their current level of understanding, but not so far beyond that point as to cause frustration.

Teachers can target differentiated reading instruction, but not all instruction should be differentiated—a mix of whole-class, small-group, and individualized instruction allows teachers to address both common and individual needs of their students flexibly.

When Teaching Online

For Independent Practice

  • Use formative assessment to determine what most of the class is ready to learn, rather than adhering to a strict, predetermined schedule.
  • Fill in learning gaps with review at the start of your lesson. For example, begin a letter-sounds lesson with a phonological awareness warm-up using words with the target letter-sounds.
  • Differentiation doesn’t have to mean working on totally different skills—you can also differentiate the level of scaffolding provided (for instance, audio support while reading) and the way students demonstrate the skill (for example, audio record a summary instead of writing it).
  • If data show that students lack prerequisite knowledge required for an upcoming lesson, assign independent practice activities that will help them prepare.

Adapting instruction to a remote environment comes with plenty of challenges. By going back to the fundamentals of learning that have been established over decades of research, we can find new approaches to instruction that fit our ever-changing world.


How are you navigating a remote and in-person school year? Explore HMH Connected Teaching and Learning to address instructional planning, remote teaching and learning, equity and access, and professional learning.

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