Distance Learning for Reading – How to Teach Virtually

Text says "How to Teach Reading Virtually (with distance learning.)" Photo shows a girl facing a computer screen where a teacher stands in front of an easel.

Distance learning may be upon us once again. As we contemplate this turn of events, many K-2 teachers are left wondering, “How do I teach reading during distance learning?” Find several practical ideas in this post.

Teaching reading (and writing) to beginning readers is my passion. It’s my favorite part of the school day. I love the joyfully interactions with books, the lightbulb moments when something makes sense, and opening a new world to children. This is why I teach.

So when my school closed in March due to Covid-19, I was at a loss. I really struggled to re-envision instruction in this new setting. How do you teach kids to read when you are miles and miles away from them? I assumed the school closure would be short-term, so I only needed a short-term solution. After all, we’d be back in school by May, right? How wrong I was…

What have I tried?

I started out by posting pre-recorded phonics lessons, writing mini-lessons and book introductions. But, they were a bit lifeless, because the heart and soul of my teaching comes from the kids in front of me (and, they were no longer in front of me.) It didn’t feel like teaching. And I felt a huge amount of guilt, because my kids weren’t learning like they would in the classroom.

I soon realized that I needed to change what I was doing. So, I experimented with some different ideas for the last six weeks of school, before hanging up my distance teaching hat for a while. Then I continued researching and learning as the summer went on – trying to find the perfect formula for teaching kids to read through distance teaching.

Photo of you girl sitting at a desk at home - engaged in a distance learning reading lesson. She faces a computer that shows a teacher standing in front of an easel.

Sadly, I didn’t find the perfect answer. I’m still not convinced I will be as effective teaching remotely as I would be in front of the classroom. But, I’m also determined to become as effective as I can. I’m going to share my current thinking with you here. Recognize that it is my current thinking, which implies that it is likely to shift and change as I experiment and learn more. But, this is a starting point.


I am fortunate to teach in a district that had 1:1 iPads in classrooms for our K-2 students. They were able to use these at home during distance learning. That helped significantly (although I still had students with limited engagement, but that’s a different story…) I realize not all schools have this option. Many schools are dependent on whatever device parents had on hand – and with multiple children in a family, that poses more challenges. I realize some schools may not be allowed to use video conferencing or will be required to teach AND manage distance learning at the same time. However, I am going to speak from my situation – and offer a few adaptations. I’m sorry I don’t have all the answers to this complex situation.

Also (if you are wondering), my school starts in Sept. and has not yet announced what the fall will look like. I’m anticipating at least part of the  year will return to distance learning, and therefore I’m planning ahead, in the hopes that I can be more prepared than I was in March.

Where to begin?

I have found in teaching, it’s always best to start from what you know. I’ve been teaching K-1 for over 20 years, so that provided me with a solid starting point. Now to figure out how to replicate my normal classroom instruction in a virtual setting.

You might not have been teaching as long as I have. But, you have some knowledge about reading instruction – from your own schooling and teaching, from your undergrad work, and from any prior interactions you’ve had with early readers (as a teacher, tutor, or caring adult.) Use that as your starting point. How can you build on what you know?

During the typical school day my reading instruction includes: 

  • fun read-alouds
  • interactive read aloud
  • shared reading
  • guided reading
  • independent reading
  • phonics/word study 

Not all of this happens every day, but these are the things I want to replicate at least weekly in my virtual instruction. Some of these will be easy to recreate than others. I know I will need to adjust my expectations a bit for teaching reading with distance learning, because of the structure and because my distance teaching lessons took more time than in person teaching.

But first… Build relationships

I’ve heard many people say that the reason distance learning kind of worked in the spring is because we already had a relationship with those students – and the lack of those relationships will make distance learning impossible in the fall. I totally agree with the first part of that statement. But, many of us are now faced with the impossible. 

I sincerely believe that student relationships are the foundation for learning. When students are having a hard time (behaviorally or academically), I lean into my relationship with them to find a solution. I use what I know about a child’s interests, preferences and strengths to better support them. It guides my book choices, writing suggestions and the topics I use for math word problems.

I typically learn about each child in a variety of ways:

  • parent questionnaires
  • conversations with the child
  • observations about book choices, interactions with peers, and drawings
  • class discussions (like a question of the day)

How can I build relationships virtually?

Although this is easier in person, many of the methods above can be adjusted for distance learning.  Parent questionnaires and questions of the day can continue. Conversations and observations will be more challenging – but you can still note their book choices, artwork, and even toys, decorations, pets and siblings in the background of virtual meetings. You might also encourage students to bring something to share (show). To prevent “bring and brag” episodes, you might use a theme, such as a favorite snack or book. All of these can help you know more about the child.

Photo of an iPad showing the question "Have you ever made a scarecrow?"

In addition to getting to know students, teachers use the fall to build a classroom community. Shared activities such as morning meeting, books, songs, chants and games contribute to this sense of community. You can continue to do many of these things virtually, using class meeting video conferences a few times a week.

Beyond getting to know students, I typically work hard to build a classroom community. This is typically done through our morning meeting, but also through shared activities. These shard activities include books, songs, chants, games, etc. Many of these can still be done virtually, but may need to be adapted a bit.

Christina Nosek has also written about how to build and maintain student relationships during this unusual time. Although she teaches 5th grade, her suggestions can be used or adapted for younger learners.

Communicate with parents

One mistake I made last spring was not communicating with parents about their role in distance learning. I found that parents seemed to feel guilty if their child made mistakes – like they weren’t doing their job properly. They also felt that their child’s work needed to be perfect before it was shared on Seesaw and that they needed to help their child immediately when the child was stuck on a word.

After a few weeks, I emailed parents and addressed one of those issues: solving words for their child. I explained the role of “wait time” in teaching, and how it was actually beneficial to allow a child to figure out a word on their own. I saw a shift among many parents (and a sigh of relief), as they realized that they didn’t have to “fix” things for their child every time.

As I’ve reflected this summer, I realize I want to improve communication with parents in distance learning. I want to share more about schedules, accessing websites and materials, and how to support their child, among other things. If this is something you want to consider, you might check out this post from Cindy Downend from Lesley University.

Now on to reading instruction…

Adaptations for Multiple Contexts

Teaching reading during distance learning involves a lot of components. There are the different instructional contexts (ex: interactive read aloud, shared reading, etc.) and the different online tools available. Some of these online tools can be used for multiple parts of reading instruction. Rather than repeat myself in each section below, I’ll share some of those in this section first.

Student Responses with Flip Grid

All day long, students are asked to share their thinking about a text (interactive read aloud, shared reading, etc.) This frequently happens in the classroom with a turn and talk structure. However, a turn and talk is a challenging with distance learning reading instruction. Instead, you might allow students to share their thoughts on FlipGrid, which allows them to view the responses from their peers.

To use FlipGrid for an interactive read aloud, you might read half of the book one day and half the next day. Students could predict events or talk about the book after listening to the first half of the story.

This app is also a fun way for students to recommend books to one another (after you model what a book recommendation looks like.) This can support students in their independent reading. 

Live Lessons

Live lessons (using some kind of video conference like Zoom or Google Meets) will help you recreate your instructional day. It’s much easier to teach a live lesson than to record it and upload it. It also feels more like normal teaching.

However, I have found that students are often more distractible via video conference than they are in the classroom (and that says something for K-2 kids!) You may need to be more animated in your teaching, plan for more frequent breaks, or simply switch activities frequently (such as changing from one phonemic awareness activity to another.) Also, think about ways students can respond with their bodies – facial expressions, thumbs up, etc.

Individual Instructional Contexts

I’ll continue to share adaptations for virtual teaching that will work best for each individual component of reading instruction.

Read Aloud for Fun

Choose stories your students would enjoy or introduce a new series that kids might enjoy reading. You can read live stories, pre-record yourself reading, or link to pre-recorded stories that are already online. 

Interactive Read Aloud

A key piece of the interactive read aloud is the interaction – when students share their thinking as part of a class conversation. This is best done through a live lesson, although Flip Grid could be used for a pre-recorded reading (see above.) It will be important to model your thinking about what you notice and how you think about the story.

Shared Reading

You have several options for virtual shared reading texts:

  • poems on charts (have the camera zoom in close so students can see the text)
  • poems that you type on a slide or page and share with screen sharing 
  • shared writing that the class composed earlier (consider the Google extension Jamboard, or type it on a slide or document to share)
  • project a short book or poem using a document camera
  • a short digital book displayed with screen sharing

With beginning readers, be sure to use a pointer as you model and read chorally. If you are screen sharing, explore ways to enlarge your cursor so students can see it more easily. Encourage students to chime in for repeated reads.

Image of a chart showing the poem "Jack Be Nimble."

As you revisit the text later in the week, you can focus on different teaching points, much as you would in the classroom:

  • concepts about print
  • meaning of the text
  • word solving strategies and demonstrations (model on a real whiteboard or one within your video conference platform)
  • fluency

Shared reading is most engaging during a live video conference session, but it can be done in a pre-recorded video. With a video, you might try to be even more enthusiastic (and maybe sillier) than normal to keep kids engaged.

Phonemic Awareness, Phonics and Word Study

The structure of these lessons vary quite a bit and often involve some modeling or direct instruction. You will likely want to make this briefer than it is in your classroom, because it seems hard to pay attention for long chunks of time through a video screen. You can use the same picture and word cards that you use in school to save time, or create digital versions to use.

To allow participation, you might provide students with individual white boards. If those aren’t available, you can laminate sheets of card stock or staple a booklet of scratch paper to use for dictate words and sentences.

These lessons can be pre-recorded, but you may want to keep them brief (5-7 minutes) since you aren’t able to interact and provide immediate feedback. This was the most common lesson I pre-recorded in the spring. After each lesson, I added a short task on Seesaw that corresponded to the lesson. Through trial and error, I found that 3-6 pictures to sort or words to read/spell worked better than a larger number. Students found too many words frustrating, after watching a video that was not truly interactive. 

In order to provide modeling and feedback for students, you may want to be intentional about incorporating some of your phonemic awareness, phonics and word study skills into other literacy contexts, such as shared reading or shared writing. This will not only help students see the transfer of these skills, but will also allow them to practice the skills in meaningful ways.

Guided Reading

Sadly, I don’t have the answers for guided reading during distance learning. Instead I met with individual students through a video conference to do coaching sessions as they read. I structured it similarly to a guided reading lesson, but focused much of our time on reading the actual text. I was able to send some books home with students in March. Once we had read all of those, we used digital texts from a variety of sources, or books the child had at home.

Pioneer Valley (a publishing company that focuses on young readers) has provided a number of webinars with suggestions for guided reading through distance learning. You’ll need to scroll down to their April dates. Note that they do encourage you to use their digital reader, which is now available through a subscription. But much of what they suggest could be used with any digital text.

I hope to experiment more with small group instruction if (when) we return to distance learning this school year. However, I need to remind myself that small group instruction is supplemental to the whole group instruction that is described above. It is intended to build on, not replace, that instruction. Therefore, my initial focus will be replicating other pieces of literacy instruction in a virtual format.

Independent Reading

Independent reading in distance learning is pretty self-explanatory. The biggest challenge is getting books in kids’ hands, especially if they have a limited number of books at home. Start by partnering with your school to determine a plan (I personally prefer paper books for beginning readers and will work hard to get those to my students if at all possible.)

Photo of a colorful stack of books, with the top book wide open.

If you are not able to get paper books to students, there are several solid resources for digital texts:

Some public libraries also have a way to access e-books, if you have a library card and device to read them with.

As you encourage independent reading during distance learning, be intentional about what you ask of families. Determine an appropriate length of time for your students, based on

  • experience with reading (and reading level)
  • age and grade (5-10 minutes might be all 1st graders can handle at first)
  • distractions that happen at home (we can better control this in the school setting)
  • types of books children are reading (8-page picture books don’t take long to read)

Consider supplementing your independent reading expectations with some listening to reading options (using apps or YouTube videos), especially with beginning readers. While not the same as independent reading, it still supports reading comprehension and vocabulary development.

There you have it: my current thinking about how to teach kids to read virtually – during distance learning. The key take aways are to make your distance learning reading routine as similar as possible to your normal routine, while making reasonable adaptations due to the difficulty little ones have paying attention during video learning. You can experiment and make changes as needed, just as you would in the classroom. Finally, remember to start with relationship building – and keep that central to all of your work with these little ones. Best of luck for your school year!

Learn more about Distance Learning:

Book photo credit to Hidesy’s Clipart

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