Preschoolers can learn to read in a virtual classroom as well.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the country, students of all ages—from high school students taking Advanced Placement classes to preschoolers learning their ABCs—shifted to remote learning on a screen.

While learning to read online may appear to be a difficult task, a new study from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences indicates that children may gain key reading abilities in a virtual classroom with other students. According to the researchers, their “Reading Camp” program indicates not just the efficiency of the strategy, but also the ability to reach a larger number of pupils remotely, whether by necessity or choice.

At the age of five, children are ready to begin learning to read. However, the epidemic deprived youngsters of the opportunity to get in-person reading instruction. What we’ve demonstrated here is that an online reading camp designed to foster social learning works incredibly well. An online camp may be utilized by children from all over the world, which is quite exciting. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS and a UW professor of speech and hearing sciences, is one of the authors.

The study, which was published online on March 31 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, describes a two-week reading program that was delivered remotely to 83 5-year-olds beginning in fall 2020.

Learning to read entails several processes, beginning with recognizing distinct sounds in a language (phonological awareness), progressing to knowing the names of specific letters and how they sound (letter-sound knowledge), and finally decoding words and their meanings.

When compared to a control group of youngsters who did not receive the teaching, the participants indicated learning of certain reading abilities such as phonological awareness and letter-sound knowledge, according to the study.

I-LABS researchers, including study co-author Jason Yeatman (now at Stanford University), provided a two-week reading summer camp in 2019 to teach pre-kindergarteners early literacy skills and analyze brain activity before and after training. With the pandemic slated to begin in the spring of 2020, researchers decided to convert the in-person reading camp into an online version via Zoom.

“Children are ready to learn to read at the age of 5. But the pandemic robbed children of the opportunity for in-person reading instruction. What we’ve shown here is that an online Reading Camp designed to promote learning socially works phenomenally well. An online camp can be used all over the world by children anywhere, and that is truly exciting.”

Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS and a UW professor of speech and hearing sciences.

Researchers shipped a set of materials to parents ahead of the remote camp, which included headphones, worksheets, and novels, as well as Play-Doh, toys, and other enjoyable objects for use in the sessions. Instead of raising their hands, children used colored plastic eggs from the kit to “vote” for the correct answer in their virtual classroom.

The Reading Camp divided the youngsters into six-person classrooms, each with two instructors who had been educated in the appropriate skills sessions. Sessions lasted three hours per day, with frequent breaks, short lessons interspersed with games, and a story time at the end. The classrooms were frequently divided into three-student breakout rooms, each with its own teacher to focus on the lessons and games.

Yael Weiss-Zruya, the study’s first author and an I-LABS research scientist, said, “This indicates that we can genuinely teach kids online if we use the right methodology, keep them interested, and ensure that they interact socially with their peers and teachers.” “By combining all of this, we were able to achieve success.”

Children in both the Reading Camp and control groups were given a variety of conventional and non-standardized examinations to assess their knowledge of letters, sounds, and words. The results showed that Reading Camp participants improved in all of the reading skills evaluated, particularly phonological awareness and understanding of lowercase letters and sounds, more than the control group children.

To be honest, I was skeptical that 5-year-olds could learn to read online without the assistance of a real tutor. But I was astounded when I saw these 5-year-olds on Zoom laughing and encouraging each other to listen and hold up the correct color egg. Their social ties were clear, and their learning was phenomenal. “They addressed one another by name and appeared to be quite excited about seeing each other on the screen,” Kuhl added.

Researchers intend to hold more online reading camps and to include brain scans before and after the camps to assess how learning to read affects brain development.

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