Distance Learning in Literacy: My Takeaways from the First Six Weeks by Dr. Sam Bommarito


Before I begin the blog, a special announcement- Many of my readers know that I am Chairman of the Missouri Literacy Association. MLA is cosponsoring The Virtual Write to Learn conference this year. For conference information/registration, go to  LINK.  MLA is also sponsoring a contest where four lucky folks can win a free registration for one of the conference strands. For details about the contest, go to LINK. In a nutshell, anyone can enter by sending an e-mail to missouriliteracy@gmail.com. In the body of the e-mail, give your name and grade level or your role (e.g., staff developer). Among the strands this year is one by Matt Glover. At the end of this blog, you will find a screen capture giving all the conference strands. For University professors, the conference this year has adopted a new policy:  Professors who register for the conference can allow their classes to watch the conference sessions either live or with an on-demand session recording that will be available for 90 days after the conference.  See you there!

Dr. Sam

Distance Learning in Literacy: My Takeaways from the First Six Weeks

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

During my 50 plus year in education, I have worn many hats- Title One reading teacher/staff developer, university professor, national reading consultant. I am retired (sort of). One of the things I do is push into my grandchildren’s elementary building for two full days a week. Along came Covid. Now what?  At the start of the year, the principal, classroom teachers and I brainstormed about things I could still do. All of them had to be distance learning since I could no longer come to the building in person this year.  Fortunately, over the past summer, I used Zoom to work with some of the students I tutor.  By this fall, I knew some practical things I could offer the staff that might really help.

For Kindergarten, there was a quick and easy to implement software program. That program is Headsprout. Headsprout is one of the many software programs produced by the Learning A-Z company. They also publish the popular Raz Kids plus program. In the way of full disclosure, I used their programs when I was working as an elementary Title 1 reading teacher/staff developer. I found out about them from one of the teachers I worked with. The Raz Kids became one of the programs I used with my grades 1-4 classes. I even did a presentation for them at the ILA convention when it was held in St. Louis.  Headsprout is what I call a turnkey program.  It is designed to teach the students their sounds and how to put together those sounds into words. The program then provides them with progressively more complicated decodable books. Copies of the books can be run off. The students I tutored this summer have an extensive set of these books. Being the centrist that I am, these were not the only books they got. They also got Fountas and Pinnell Keep books and trade books by authors like Eric Litwin. 

Currently, the school is doing a five day a week face-to-face program for the children who want that option.  They are doing distance learning for children who do not. The advantage of programs like Headsprout is that they work in either setting. The face to face children still get the regular program. In that setting, Headsprout is a supplement that helps to ensure the students do get a program designed to build their decoding skills.  For the distance learning children, Headsprout guarantees that the students will still learn how words work and that they will master the skills they need to break the code.  Like all the Learning A-Z programs, it provides extensive feedback on how the child progresses and alerts the teacher to what sounds have been introduced and mastered. That information makes it very easy to coordinate the program with the rest of the reading instruction. My role in all this was to help get the program set up, help inform parents of what the program was all about and answer teachers’ questions about the program.

For grades one and two, my role includes direct teaching in a whole group, small group and even some individual tutoring.  I come into each of the classrooms once a week for a whole group session. Thanks to Zoom, I can see the whole class in real-time and the whole class can see me on the classroom’s smartboard.  It is almost like being there in person.  In previous years, when I came in, I would do some whole group lessons and then work with one of the small groups.  This year, with some adaptations, I do the same thing. Let us talk about the whole group work first.

The teachers at the school are following a basal series for their literacy program.  They then use guided reading groups to supplement and support the basal.  I would mention that when I was working in some award-winning Title 1 programs in the 1980s, that is how their programs first began. Eventually, the district dropped the basal and went to a guided reading only model.  It remains to be seen if something similar will happen at this building.  Each week the guided reading groups focus on the same skills that the basal is teaching. This past week the skill was that good readers look for details.  One of the places good readers can find details is in the stories, pictures, and illustrations. I did a mini lesson around that teaching point and told them as they did their guided reading work to be sure to use that strategy.  I also did some word work with the group.  The spelling program is designed to teach the students about the sounds they need to learn.  I use making and breaking to develop that kind of sound/symbol knowledge. The teachers and I know we are teaching the students about such things as blends, diphthongs, and digraphs.  For the students, we talk about special pairs or chunks. For instance, the sound “sh” makes and use that sound to make various words.

Each week we look over our spelling words for chunks or special pairs,. For instance, words like dish, fish, ship.  First, we put up the special pair. Then we say the word slowly and build the word around the special pair. All this is done using magnetic letters. My doc camera allows me to do the word work with magnetic letters in real-time.  The combination of the doc cam and using the record feature of Zoom allows me to make video clips for the students to use later. For me, the ability to make such clips has been a real game-changer. I can give teachers the clips. They can then make them available for the students to use at any time.

What about the guided reading groups? This is where the virtual learning feature can be of real help. For years I have used Raz Kids and Raz Kids plus for my guided reading groups.  Remember that the guided reading groups are being used as a supplement to the basal. Raz Kids has many features that make doing virtual guided reading groups possible. You can assign students to a group. You can then make a group assignment for each group using Raz Kids’ extensive library of well-written leveled text. This collection contains both expository and narrative texts.  The group can then be invited to do their Raz Kids story.  Raz Kids allows students to Listen to, Read and then Take a Quiz on each story.

The groups are instructed to listen to their book in advance of coming to the Zoom meeting. At the Zoom meeting, the teacher talks to the group about how they can use that week’s skill/strategy to help them understand the story.  The small group function in Zoom allows the teacher to create break-out groups of 2 or 3.  The teacher can drop into each break-out group during this time. Having this kind of discussion time in each group is especially important. One thing that is necessary for successful distance learning lessons is that students be active within the lesson. Student talk time should always exceed teacher talk time.  In addition, what the students talk about is equally important. We encourage them to talk about how they used this week’s strategy. As the weeks progress, we plan to also ask them to talk about how they used any of the previous week’s strategies as well.  I am heavily influenced by Nell Duke’s research on strategy teaching. The teaching strategies through gradual release results in improved reading test scores. Using the small group time to provide that gradual release is one way teachers can and should do that.

One more thing.  Since each teacher has some students who do virtual learning only, what can we do about them? One of my goals is to help take some of the burden off the classroom teachers. Raz Kids has a unique feature that lets me do just that.  You can assign students to more than one group.  I created a group containing all the virtual kids. Remember, they are also in the regular small groups, so they already have group assignments. I meet with the virtual groups at a different time than whole group. The time is set by the classroom teachers. I tell the virtual kids to listen to their assigned book before coming to the group.  My group lesson is about how they might use this week’s strategy as they read the book.  When I use the Zoom break-out rooms, I assign students in the same book to the same break out room.  I also drop into each room. I use an old writing workshop trick to help assure students are really listening to the break-out discussions. When they come back from the breakout groups, they report on what someone else from the group said.  I have only had a couple of the virtual groups so far, but to date, all is going well, and the student talk time in my groups far exceeds the teacher talk time.

So- that is what is happening so far. I will say that Headsprout and Raz Kids are not the only software programs out there.  When you do your own planning, I highly recommend that you think about what you really want to do and then locate software that helps you do it. Do not be a slave to the software. Treat the software as a tool and look for the best ways that tools can help you.  Next week I will return to the topic of good resources to help you do that. This includes books, websites, and blogs. 

Dr. Sam Bommarito (back in the saddle again learning how to use cyber tools)

Copyright 2020 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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Here is a screen capture of the line-up for the Write to Learn conference

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