Literacy is multi-faceted, complex, and incredibly powerful. It’s truly embedded into everything we learn and do. It might seem as if literacy is just reading, writing, speaking, and listening, but there is so much more to it. In our current digital world, literacy is also seen through the skills of digital and media literacy. Literacy is all around us.
Since our schools have shifted to blended and online learning in the recent year, it’s evident that literacy skills are often developed in different ways now. Instead of read-alouds happening in a physical classroom, they are happening over a screen. Rather than students writing in their notebooks, they are creating digital stories online. Where there once was students gathered around a table for guided reading groups, they are now meeting in groups to read on a video call.
Many teachers have had to make this change, but are still unsure how to navigate the “balancing act” of balanced literacy in an online environment. With my experience teaching online this year, I have learned a lot of ways we can instil a successful literacy program in a the early elementary online classroom and I’m here to share my findings.
What Does Balanced Literacy Look Like Online?
Similar to the physical classroom, literacy needs to be balanced, engaging, and cross circular. Even though it may look different in an online setting, a balanced literacy framework is still essential for students partaking in remote learning. There needs to be differentiated instruction and various opportunities for students to develop their reading and writing skills. In the context of reading, there are many ways it can be facilitated online so that students are engaged and empowered. According to Saskatchewan Reads, the “gradual release of responsibility model” gives students choice in their reading tasks while teachers can still support them and facilitate literacy with cross curricular instruction. Saskatchewan Reads describes four instructional approaches, modelled after the Ontario Early Reading Strategy, which include Modelled Reading, Shared Reading, Scaffolded/ Guided Reading, and Independent Reading.
These four instructional approaches can be facilitated in an online environment so that students can still have choice and control in their learning. Here are some ways they can be embedded into online learning:
Modelled Reading and Shared Reading:
– Model the thinking processes during live class lessons through a video conferencing tool like Zoom or Google Meet. Most publishers permit the use of their books in a live non-recorded setting. Use before, during, and after reading strategies like you would in a physical class setting. During your class meetings, use breakout rooms to cultivate class discussions for your cross circular literacy lessons.
– Use a tool like EdPuzzle to embed before, during, and after reading strategies like you would in a physical class setting. Use high quality YouTube videos or obtain copyright permission to record yourself reading the story. This type of modelled reading is beneficial for an asynchronous learning format.
– Post your own book recordings or YouTube read-alouds to your Learning Management System (LMS) like Google Classroom, Moodle, or Seesaw. Model your thinking by posing a thought or reflection about the story and then ask students to engage in a discussion by posting their thoughts and reflections.
Scaffolded and Guided Reading
– Begin the school year by individually assessing your student’s reading levels during a Zoom or Google Meet. First, use an online booking form so that families can choose a time that works for them. Next, use a sight word assessment guide, like the Dolch word list, to find out roughly what reading level they are at. Paste the words on a Google Slideshow, share your screen for the student to see, and go through the list like you would in a classroom setting. After that, use a platform like Raz Kids, Newsela, or the Fountas and Pinnell Online Resources website to get a better idea of their comprehension skills. Once their reading level is determined, assign them to a virtual guided reading group.
– If students are unable to join the synchronous reading testing session, you can post a reading list to your LMS platform, like Seesaw, and have them record themselves reading the words and answering questions with the recording tool.
– Once your guided reading groups are determined, meet with them consistently like you would in any balanced literacy framework, like Daily 5. Use a platform like Raz Kids, Spark, or Epic to share your screen and facilitate virtual reading groups with before, during, and after readings strategies.
– Start the school year off by slowly introducing independent reading skills, similar to how Daily 5 is facilitated in the classroom. Use online instructional videos to teach lessons like reading “Good Fit Books.” Feel free to download the Good Fit Book slideshow and lesson I created for the online instructional video I posted for the start of the school year.
– Introduce at-home reading resources like Raz Kids, Epic, and Sora. Encourage students to use the contact-free services from their local library.
– Post asynchronous literacy activities to your LMS and give students choice over their learning, like Caitlyn Tucker suggests in the post “Design a Choose Your Own Adventure Learning Experience.” Tucker also has a Reading Strategies Choice Board listed in the article “Reading Resources for Your Blended or Online Class.”
– Encourage students to read out loud to the family members in their households, friends or relatives over FaceTime, and even their own stuffed animals.
There are many ways to facilitate balanced literacy in an online format, but it is important to find out what works best for your students! It’s also important to remember that balanced literacy needs to be flexible. Guided reading groups are always changing based on your students skills, growth, and interests. The best way to have a successful literacy program is to make sure your students are engaged and having fun.
Choosing Books with Intention
According to the K-12 Saskatchewan Curriculum, there are three Broad Areas of Learning that are instilled not only in English Language Arts, but across every subject area. Each subject in the curriculum encourages students to be lifelong learners, to have a sense of sense of self, community, and place, and to become engaged citizens.
This helps us understand that literacy is more than reading and writing. These areas of learning should be embedded into every subject area, including literacy. If we want to empower our students to be life long learners, have an understanding of self, community, and place, and become engaged citizens, we need to choose books and resources with intention. Even in an online and blended learning format, we need to choose books that are:
When we choose books and resources for our online classrooms, we need to ask ourselves: Who’s voice is represented? Can students see themselves in the story? Are there biases or stereotypes present? If students are engaging in literacy all around them, let’s use our online classroom as an opportunity to start the critical conversations and spark inspiration. Over the past couple of years, I have become more aware and critical of the books I choose for my classroom…. and now for the virtual classroom. Here are some of my favourite story books for kids that can create critical class discussions. These books also encourage students to become life long learners, engaged citizens, and more aware of their self, community, and place. Click on the titles of each book to find the recorded YouTube versions to use for your online classroom as well.
All Are Welcome
By: Alexandra Penfold
Illustrated by: Suzanne Kaufman
You Hold Me Up
By: Monique Gray Smith
Illustrated by: Danielle Daniel
The Day You Begin
By: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by: Rafael López
*Your Name is a Song
By: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
Illustrated by: Luisa Uribe
Last Stop on Market Street
By: Matt De La Peña
Illustrated by: Christian Robinson
By: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by: E.B. Lewis
By: Peter H. Reynolds
Illustrated by: Peter H. Reynolds
Nibi’s Water Song
By: Sunshine Tenasco
Illustrated by: Chief Lady Bird
Common Sense Media also has book lists for various themes and topics. Check out their post called “Books with LGBTQ+ Characters” to find a great list of suggestions.
After looking through my list of suggestions, are there anymore that you would add? Do you know of any other online resources that can help you facilitate reading and writing with your online or blended classroom? I would love to hear your thoughts and continue this important conversation. My hope is that you can use my literacy suggestions and resources to enhance your online classroom and in the end, master the balancing act of balanced literacy.
*The original post had the book “Thunder Boy Jr.” by Sherman Alexie. It was later found out that this author admitted “he ‘has harmed’ others, after rumors and allegations began to circulate about sexual harassment” (NPR, 2018). Raquel Oberkirsch suggested reading an open letter by Debbie Reese, the author of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, to learn more about the issue. Having these critical conversations about literature is necessary in order to become more aware and intentional about the books we choose for our classrooms.
10 thoughts on “The Balancing Act of Teaching Literacy Online”
Amanda, I love how you included books that go along with your post. This is a great tool for teachers to use to get started. Besides some of the ones you mentioned, in the past, I have used ReadWriteThink.org, Overdrive, Mystery Science, Commonlit (although it is American based) and Aurasma to create book reviews to name a few. We focus on a balanced literacy approach in my classroom, and students seem to enjoy it. I do have to say that it was a little tricky to get students to fully engage online, even though we have been doing it in the classroom all year. I still love using picture books even with the older kids. I always get a kick out of how much they enjoy the books and how excited they are to listen to the teacher read.
Thanks for sharing! Great post! I think you’d be great at an LRT or School Librarian position too!
Those are great resource suggestions! Read Write Think is fantastic. Have you ever used ReadWorks.org? It’s a non fiction reading platform like Newsela, but not expensive! I love that you can still read picture books to your students. There are so many valuable lessons within picture books that older students can learn from! Thanks for your wonderful feedback and encouragement!
Hi Amanda, I loved reading your post this week. I am saving it so I can come back to it again. You listed so many great resources! I really appreciated how you shared ideas of how to assess students reading levels online. That was something I was struggling with during online learning. Now that I am back in the classroom I find it more difficult to do reading groups because of COVID limitations. Reading your post made me wonder if balanced literacy is more successful online right now because of limitations in classrooms to accommodate different learning styles. I recently heard about an online book resource called “Vooks”. A teacher at convention shared it with me, however I have not tried it out. Might be worth looking into! Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for reading, Tessa! I have heard of Vooks, but I have never tried it! If you end up trying it, you should let me know how it is. I’m glad my post gave you some ideas. Balanced literacy can be a challenge right now, but I guess we have to think outside of the box and get creative! If you ever want to discuss it sometime, I would love to collaborate with you!
This blog post is great! So many great ideas. Just linking it to my own post about instructor presence and wondering what your thoughts are on the topic. Do you think that recording yourself modelling and reading is more engaging than using read alouds from epic, vooks, or youtube?
That’s a great question! I really do think students want to see their own teacher. If you have copyright permissions, then I would always suggest having the teacher read it instead. It helps cultivate relationship and connection. If it’s too much of a challenge to record the read-aloud, but the book is important for the students to listen to, then that’s when I would turn to a tool like Epic or YouTube.
Hey Amanda! Great post. Your post is so relevant and so important during COVID and with the recent events of the past year. How does Regina Public support you with literacy and online teaching? I know our school division has an online library in which we add ebooks and audiobooks regularly. I appreciate the connection to EdPuzzle and other ways to further engage students in reading. A great way to structure your blog post around Sask Reads. Thanks again!
Thanks for reading, Curtis! Our division recently got a subscription to an online library resource called Sora, which is really helpful for our online learners, especially high school. We are also trialing the Fountas and Pinnell online resource, which has been very helpful for online reading assessments in the primary grades. Our school also recently purchased the Spark resource for grade 1-4 classes to use for Guided Reading. It has definitely been a challenge to navigate balanced literacy online, but our division has supported us in a lot of ways.
Thanks for this insightful post, Amanda! I love how you shared specific strategies and resources for using the four instructional approaches in online settings. And thanks for sharing the good fit books slideshow as well!
You shared some fantastic book recommendations! I really appreciated what you said about choosing books that are intentional, inclusive, and impactful. On that topic, have you heard about the controversy around teaching Sherman Alexie books? He has been accused of sexual harassment by many women, so some reviewers have decided not to recommend his books anymore because of the harm he has caused to Indigenous women/authors. Debbie Reese, the author of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog (an amazing resource for book reviews and discussions on accurate representations of Indigenous peoples) has an open letter about Sherman Alexie with a timeline and links to articles. Here is the link:
Just wanted to share as I think teachers should be aware of this before they decide to teach his books!
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Thanks for reading, Raquel! I actually had no idea. Thank you so much for letting me know and for linking the open letter. I think that’s why having these critical conversations is so important. They allow us to acknowledge, learn, and then grow. I would love to choose a different book about identity, but still leave a note in my blog post about the reason for removing the book. That way, other teachers can be aware of it too. The book I am going to use is called “Your Name is a Song.” Do you have any other suggestions for children’s books about identity? Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and perspective on this topic!