We’re in the midst of a back-to-school season like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised lots of questions about how to safely and effectively keep kids learning when traditional classroom teaching isn’t an option. Many schools across the U.S. are focusing on virtual learning for the time being, with classes being held primarily or exclusively online.
Meanwhile, parents from all walks of life are worried about how to make sure their kids are keeping up. Affluent parents have hired tutors or forming learning “pods” with their friends and neighbors. Other families are struggling just to access a stable internet connection or the basic technology their kids need for class, like a laptop with a webcam. These inequities aren’t unique to virtual learning; they are reflections of the opportunity gaps that existed in American education long before the pandemic and are only widening now.
I know that these issues of systemic inequity will not be resolved overnight, or even by the end of this school year. But there’s one crucial learning activity that every child—no matter their circumstances—can do right now, at home: reading.
There’s a reason that Harriett Ball—the master teacher who inspired the creation of KIPP—urged her students, “You gotta read, baby, read!” Independent reading, where students choose the books they read and are given dedicated time to read on their own, has benefits that go way beyond the written page.
Research shows students who read independently not only become better readers, but have greater knowledge in all subject areas and score higher on achievement tests, compared to those who do not. The amount of reading done outside of school hours can improve a child’s vocabulary, reading comprehension and verbal fluency. And the greater their reading skills, the more prepared students are to understand and dive into other subjects at school.
Independent reading is also fun! It’s a way for students to explore new subjects at their own pace, to exercise their imaginations and connect with their creativity. Even though there’s a lot that’s stressful about our virtual learning environment right now, students can still enjoy the familiar pleasure of diving into a good book.
So how can we encourage students to keep reading all school year long?
Three Tips for Teachers
- Create a space for students to recommend great books to each other, even in a virtual setting. One way to do this is by setting up a “virtual bookshelf” where your students share books that they’ve enjoyed reading, so that their classmates can find books they’re interested in. Once a student finds a book that they love, you can search for similar titles online and create a ladder of book recommendations for students to try next.
- Connect students to their local library. Some school and public libraries are offering safe book pick-ups and drop-offs so that students have more variety available to them. Most public libraries today also have e-books available for loan, which work on many devices that are accessible to students. This is a great way to get more books in the hands of students, particularly our young adult readers.
- Share “book trailers” with your students. These are short videos in the style of movie trailers, which many publishers create for the release of new books. Book trailers are a great way to introduce students to new books that can be found in your school library or local public library. Students can also create their own book trailers to share with their classmates for books they’ve read.
Of course, no matter what strategies you use, make sure to keep track of all the books your students are reading and set individualized goals for how many books each student hopes to read.
Three Tips for Families
- Make independent reading a part your child’s daily routine. Make reading time sacred for both you and your child. Balance this with an abundance of choice, utilizing your local library to help make this possible. Let kids pick the books and topics that they want to read about. Research tells us that building knowledge about the world through texts and topics supports overall reading achievement.
- When you can, read aloud with your kids. Children love independent reading more as they develop a love of books overall and reading aloud can be very motivating for children of all ages. Read a variety of picture books and chapter books aloud with your kid or have them read aloud to you. You could also consider listening to audio books together as a family.
- When possible, let your kids see you reading. Share the books or the articles you are reading. Talk about the interesting things that you read about or learned while reading. Talk about what you are reading often, so that it becomes part of the fabric of your kids’ experience at home.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about teaching and learning in a pandemic. But one thing we do know is that when kids read, they learn.