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Teaching Literacy During Pandemic

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Like many educational institutions in different parts of the world, our schools here in the United States, from preschool to higher education, have grappled with the transition from the traditional classroom instruction to virtual teaching and learning when the global pandemic struck.  At our college alone, when Covid-19 made its debut to our city in March 2020, our Department of Education made the drastic announcement of moving all our face-to-face classes online with very little notice and limited time to ramp up. I remember, that was certainly a very challenging time – our hair was on fire. With no experience teaching online, some of our faculty members had to traverse the online learning tools at the speed of a bullet. Then as we metaphorically described it, we built the plane while flying it.

However, it was not only the teachers who wrestled with the transition. Our students had also their share of challenges. As a matter of fact, while I was preparing my material for this webinar, I encountered an interesting article titled Literacy in Lockdown: Learning and Teaching During Covid-19 School Closures. It was published in November 2020 by The Reading Teacher. According to the study, “Students responded and reacted to their new instructional experiences by crafting new and hybrid literacy practices adopted within their new communicative space.”

I think this is what we call human resilience. People have the intuitive capability to rise above the occasion by facing difficulties head-on and using strategies to adapt well to overcome adversity.

However, given our diverse and unique situations from each other, I imagine that our learning and teaching experiences during this pandemic varies. In the article “How Do We Teach Literacy During a Pandemic…” by Peter Dewitt, a former K-12 school principal turned author said, and I quote, “For most people in school communities around the world, we entered the pandemic age of education, and although many educators, leaders, parents, and students worked really hard, still it was not the best academic learning experiences.” And, this statement, I assume resonates with some, if not with many of us. 

And this reminds me of my niece’s experience. She just graduated from elementary school in a public school in the Philippines, and to apply for Grade 7 in her preferred school, she took an entrance exam. But, to her dismay, she did not meet the cut off score, and therefore her application was denied. She explained that the reading part was tough. So, while she was a little bit brokenhearted, she acknowledged the validity of her test results. She admitted that using modular instruction for the whole school year, without the familiar interactions from her teachers, classmates, and course materials, did not help her to get ready for her middle school entrance exam. Unfortunately, her reading and reading comprehension suffered.

So, focusing on our today’s topic, the question is how do we teach literacy during the pandemic? 

When I told my husband that the theme of my talk was teaching literacy during the pandemic, he showed immediate puzzlement. He knows that I teach ESOL in college, and most of my students are already college graduates, some even have their post graduate degrees. That being said, there is no question that my students are already literate in their first language. Hence, it is understandable why my husband raised eyebrows when he keyed in on the word “literacy.”

So, let us start by defining what literacy is.

It is a common knowledge to everyone that literacy refers to the ability of a person to read and write. And, to some people who are not in the field of education, they may assume that literacy skills are mostly focused on language arts classes. While that is very much true, literacy skills are equally necessary for other academic subjects. Educators are cognizant that students who cannot understand material in a textbook – it does not matter what course it is – may fall behind in class. The student’s ability to absorb and understand the content of assigned reading material is a vital skill for every student, in every class. And therefore, it is crucial that literacy skills are incorporated in every course, should it be in math, science, music, or other coursework.

But how did we teach literacy skills during this pandemic when we ourselves, educators, were baffled on how to navigate the steep learning curve of teaching remotely?  

I am sure this was also a burning question for most of you when you transitioned to virtual teaching during the start of the school year.

Teaching for higher education was no different from teaching lower level classes. Like I said, when I received the college-wide email notifying faculty that starting immediately all our courses would be transferred online due to Covid 19, I mildly panicked.  How could I transfer six classes online in just a few days? That would be a miracle.

So, following the announcement, I was glued in front of my computer for the next 3-4 days attending online workshops from our e-Learning team who guided us (the Canvas Calvary as our Dean would refer to us) through the transition. Opportunities, consideration, patience and flexibility were highly emphasized, especially in the context of virtual teaching, course expectations, course evaluations, and alternative grading options.

Once I got caught up with my materials, the reality bites. Evidently, remote teaching raised important questions and challenges more than I imagined. Questions such as: Did my students have internet at home? If they had internet, did they know how to navigate the online technology platforms such as Zoom and Canvas, which were sponsored by the college? How could I bridge our language gap when all my students could see was my face in a small box? How would I curb and stop DWL or Driving While Learning using their phones, which is a big no no and an absolute driving hazard?

It was tough! But like anything else, after a very rough Spring Term 2020, I learned to adapt and overcome. So here are some of the lessons I have learned in teaching literacy skills during pandemic.

  • Building a community of learning

Since I’ve started teaching remotely, I’ve encouraged my students to create a Whats App group in each of my classes, where my students can build a community of learning and interact freely with their classmates even outside our virtual environment. Texting is a form of communication. So, with this app, not only my students get to practice their written English, but they also get to take advantage of its functions to share materials/information with their classmates, collaborate for their group assignments/projects, and I also use it to follow up on attendance.

  • Enhancing vocabulary

Since using technology is a crucial component in teaching remotely, I find it also very important to use different methodologies to present my instructional materials to my students. This is to serve both my students who have the capability to attend our Zoom meetings, as well as those who cannot participate due to some technological or personal reasons.

Even before the pandemic, I had already been a big advocate for teaching vocabulary to build one’s language skills in all my ESOL classes – it does not matter if it’s a grammar class or an ESP class. For me vocabulary must be the centerpiece. I stress and acknowledge the important role of vocabulary in reading comprehension. You cannot understand a text if you don’t know the word. In the same way, it is hard to communicate orally or in written if you don’t have the words. Thus, vocabulary building is always included in my instructional materials.

However, if before the pandemic presenting vocabulary words in our discussion would  be sufficient for me, this time in the pandemic era, besides providing my students the text copy of the vocabulary words, I also provide them a recorded copy of my voice reading the vocabulary words and their definitions. This serves a dual purpose. One is to give opportunity for my second language learners who are not able to attend our live meetings to gain access to learning at their convenience. And second, my methodology also supports my students who wish to review the lesson maybe even repeatedly, especially the pronunciation, which is very important in speaking as we all know.

  • Translating Speech to the Written Word- Discussion Boards

By providing my students with discussion boards, they are also able to express a concept in their own words. For instance, in my ESP class on Personal Finance, I offer opportunities to my students to express their thoughts in writing – sharing their perspective on the importance of money management or banking, for example. This writing exercise encourages logical thinking and communicating ideas which are important facets in developing writing skills.   

  • Instilling love for literacy

As a teacher, I believe that we have an important role in serving as a model for our students. Thus, one of our goals should be to develop and instill a love of literacy in our students. We should not limit our lecture materials to the academic curriculum at hand. We can pick up something fun yet related to and meaningful to their learning. We can also assign them to read something that appeals to their interest where they can pick and choose freely. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a comic book or a magazine.

I remember, in some of my writing classes, I assigned my students to read a book of their preference and write a book report. There was always a big sigh accompanied by multiple moaners when I told them about the assignment. Some of my students resisted the idea with eyes rolling. However, after completing the assignment, many of them noted that they were pleasantly surprised with the experience. They did not realize that reading something in a book length format could be enjoyable until they tried it. So, as their teachers, it is important that we take that lead role.

Before the pandemic, I would usually bring my students to the library to pick a book that interest them. The key to literacy, in my view, is to instill that love for reading so that they can and will unlock that door to lifelong learning. After all, it just takes a spark to make a flame.

So, with that, let us not forget, pandemic or no pandemic, we are teachers. And, as Scott Hayden beautifully put it, “Teachers have three loves: love of learning, love of learners, and the love of bringing the first two loves together.”

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