Even in a virtual classroom, preschoolers can learn reading skills

Press Releases

April 11, 2022

A new study from the Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences at UW focuses on the early reading skills of preschoolers.Rendy Novantino/Unsplash

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the country, students of all ages — from high schoolers in advanced placement classes to preschoolers mastering the ABCs — transitioned to remote learning on screen.

And while learning to read in an online environment can seem like a daunting task, new research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences reveals that children can develop key reading skills in a classroom. virtual classroom with other students. The researchers say their “Reading Camp” program not only demonstrates the effectiveness of the approach, but also the potential to reach more students remotely, either by necessity or by choice.

“Children are ready to learn to read at age 5. But the pandemic has deprived children of the opportunity to take in-person reading lessons. What we’ve shown here is that an online book camp designed to promote social learning works incredibly well. An online camp can be used all over the world by kids anywhere, and that’s really exciting,” the faculty author said. Patricia Kuhlco-director of I-LABS and UW Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences.

the studypublished online March 31 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, details a two-week reading program, which teachers delivered remotely to 83 5-year-olds starting in fall 2020.

screenshot of six children holding plastic eggs and two teachers wearing chicken hats

A screenshot from Reading Camp shows one of the ways the program engaged preschoolers: teachers wore fun hats, kids ‘voted’ for the correct letter and sound with plastic eggs plastic, and each lesson had a theme – in this case, farm animals.Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences

Learning to read involves a series of steps, from recognizing the distinct sounds in a language (phonological awareness), to identifying individual letter names and their sounds (letter sound knowledge), to decoding words and their meaning.

The study reveals that participants demonstrated learning specific reading skills, such as phonological awareness and letter sound knowledge, compared to a control group of children who did not receive the instruction.

I-LABS researchers, including study co-author Jason Yeatman (now at Stanford University), in 2019 offered a two-week summer reading camp to teach early literacy skills to preschoolers and measure brain activity before and after instruction. With the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, the researchers decided to adapt the in-person reading camp into an online version on Zoom.

Prior to the remote camp, researchers sent parents a kit of materials that included headphones, worksheets, and books, as well as Play-Dohs, toys, and other fun items to use during class. Children used colored plastic eggs from the kit, for example, to “vote” for the correct answer in their virtual classroom, rather than raising their hands.

The reading camp grouped the children into six-person classes, each with two instructors trained in specific skill lessons. The sessions lasted three hours a day, with several breaks, short lessons interspersed with activities and ending with a story hour. Classrooms were often divided into even smaller breakout rooms for three students, each with a teacher to focus on lessons and games.

“It shows that we can actually teach kids online if we use the right methodology, keep them engaged, and they interact socially with their peers and teachers,” said Yaël Weiss-Zruya, researcher at I-LABS and first author of the study. “Combining all of this made the success.”

The children in the reading camp and the control group took several standardized and non-standardized tests to assess knowledge of letters, sounds and words. The results showed that the reading camp participants improved all measured reading skills, as well as their phonological awareness and knowledge of lowercase letters and sounds, in particular, more than children in the control group.

“Frankly, I had my doubts about whether 5-year-olds could learn to read online without a live tutor. But when I saw these 5-year-olds on Zoom laughing and encouraging each other to listen and to hold the right colored egg, I was amazed. Their social bonds with each other were evident and their learning was amazing. They called each other by name and seemed very eager to see each other on screen,” Kuhl said.

The researchers plan to hold additional online reading camps and add brain scans before and after the camps to assess how learning to read affects brain development.

The study was funded by the Bezos Family Foundation, the Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Petunia Charitable Fund.

Additional co-authors were Suzanne Ender, Liesbeth Gijbels, Hailley Loop, Julia Mizrahi and Bo Woo, all of I-LABS.

For more information, contact Weiss at ylweiss@uw.edu, Kuhl at pkkuhl@uw.edu, or Yeatman at jyeatman@stanford.edu.

Tag(s): College of Arts and Sciences • Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences • I-LABS • Patricia Kuhl • Yael Weiss