Using Technology to Address Learner Variability in Reading During Online Learning

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In 2019, I was teaching in a fifth-grade integrated co-teaching (ICT) classroom in Brooklyn, New York. I worked with 29 students (in New York City, ICT classes are defined as up to 40 percent students with IEPs and 60 percent students who are considered general education students). As is common in public schools in New York City, we had young people with varying abilities together in the classroom. Some students were performing far above a fifth-grade reading level while other students were below grade level — some as far behind as kindergarten to first-grade academic levels. This always presents a challenge to teachers. However, in the move to remote learning, trying to meet every student’s needs seemed particularly daunting.

In March, we were at the center of one of the worst-hit areas of COVID-19, and our schools went into a shutdown immediately. Educators, parents, and students had little time to prepare for online learning. We had no idea that the shutdown would last for the remainder of the school year.

I’ve never been a super tech-savvy educator. Working in special education, I’m more the kind of teacher who is on the rug with kids, using manipulatives and doing very hands-on, visual, or kinesthetic tasks. As we moved to remote learning, I was terrified that I wasn’t going to find an effective way to teach students remotely. I needed something I could master quickly — simple, but useful enough to engage students. 

The first three weeks were a very steep learning curve. After being in education for 16 years, I felt like I was back in my first year of teaching. My co-teacher and I were trying to use material that had been used in the classroom, but much of it didn’t translate to an online system, since we were unable to sit with kids and work through the material the way you do in the classroom. We used a few online platforms for reading, but it was often difficult to determine what the students were actually retaining and gaining from these platforms. 

I’m so grateful that a neighbor who is also a teacher recommended ReadWorks. She shared a quick 50-minute training video with me. The video was fantastic! Unlike the time-consuming training required for other platforms, the ReadWorks training was concise, informative, and reassuring. That was key. During such a difficult time, we needed useful, simple, smart platforms that we could learn quickly and use easily with students. I quickly saw that ReadWorks would be a great platform to use with the class.

ReadWorks is a nonprofit that leverages learning sciences research in support of its mission to help address gaps in students’ reading achievement. They provide free resources to K–12 teachers, including a library of curated nonfiction and literary articles, reading comprehension and vocabulary lessons, formative assessments, and teacher resources.

ReadWorks is not only easy for teachers to set up. It’s also easy for students to access and for parents to understand. In our school population, many families are English language learners (ELLs), so I wanted to be sure that parents could access the content on the site without a lot of complex instruction. ReadWorks is a fantastic platform for every kind of learner, from kids who are performing above grade level, to ELLs, to students with learning difficulties. 

Not only am I an educator, but I’m also the parent of two children with dyslexia. I know firsthand how kids can struggle with online learning platforms. Online visuals that lack easily recognizable organization can throw off an already challenging process for struggling readers. ReadWorks provides concrete tools that help bridge some of the educational divide — a divide that can easily widen for students who are particularly vulnerable without in-person instruction. Useful tools include a highlight bar that moves from line to line while reading to help with text tracking. An option to number paragraphs and annotate text is invaluable when teaching kids how to cite evidence. Visual organization of a page or screen is often the number one hurdle for students with reading struggles. Having to flip between screens creates a sort of visual chaos that’s a barrier for dyslexic kids. The option to create a split-screen so the text and the comprehension questions are side by side eliminates that barrier.

While internet access continues to be an issue for many families, once they are connected, ReadWorks provides a straightforward platform that can be accessed without difficulty. That allowed me to easily walk families through instruction, and it allowed kids to quickly become independent while using the online platform. And although I still would prefer to be sitting right next to students and working through a piece of text together, I see how a digital platform such as ReadWorks can help bridge some of the divide in learning for kids and families.

Education is the key to everything. Your house, car, or money can all be taken, but no one can take away your education. Knowledge is power! Grow your brain.”

-Quote from Danette Plagge 

There is a rarely discussed reading crisis in the United States. Not enough kids are proficient in reading, and the problem is even greater among families who struggle to access reading materials. A free platform that only requires access to technology and WiFi, such as ReadWorks, could be a game-changer both during remote learning and for in-class instruction. I suggested to many families that their children continue to use the ReadWorks program throughout the summer so that they could keep working on reading skills whether in the classroom or not. I’ve seen the success ReadWorks has brought to my own child, and I was able to tell parents that ReadWorks is very manageable and will bring great results.

I plan to bring this technology back into the face-to-face environment. There are great learning opportunities for individual students as well as for whole group lessons. The material can be used to build general background knowledge and also aligns well with many other parts of the curriculum.

Technology has been vital during the transition to distance learning. As someone who had only basic skills in technology at the start of virtual learning, I was concerned about how I was going to make it work for my students. With help from the right learning platform, I see the benefit that programs like this can bring to virtual learning and the traditional classroom. Ensuring that students at all reading levels have access to research based reading materials gives me hope that my students will continue to close the education gap. I am optimistic that through technology such as ReadWorks my students will continue to make progress during the remote learning process and beyond.


What we learned/Big takeaway: It’s important to find simple programs that can work for a variety of students and that are simple for educators and parents to learn. Start by learning one small part of the technology, and then build it out as you go.


What we are still figuring out: Keeping students engaged in learning when I’m not with them in-person is a huge hurdle. Finding digital platforms that are easy for teachers to learn and not confusing for kids is something we’re still working on. Finding material that easily aligns with the preexisting curriculum is another challenge.

What I would tell other leaders during this time: The best piece of advice I received during remote learning was to get on ReadWorks. Choose two to three platforms and learn them well. Use those few platforms to create routine and familiarity. That will make it easier for you and your students. Simplicity and consistency have always been my most valuable tools as an educator. In remote learning, just like in the classroom, routines and consistent expectations create the foundations for learning. Then kids can build on that and you can lead them to creative heights in expanding their knowledge.


  • ReadWorks: In this case study, Danette Plagge discusses her adoption of the ReadWorks platform during online learning. 
  • Remote or Hybrid Learning for Educators: Danette mentioned that the training materials for the ReadWorks platform immediately impressed her. This resource contains information on how teachers can use the platform during remote or hybrid learning.
  • Sustaining Engagement of Students With Disabilities in Distance Learning Environments: In the switch to remote learning, Danette was looking for a way to meaningfully engage her students. This resource from Marshall Street offers step-by-step tips for connecting with students, and encouraging and monitoring their participation and attendance.
  • Collaborative Teaching Virtual Instruction Tips: Danette made the decision to adopt the ReadWorks platform with her co-teaching partner. This resource provides suggestions for how various models of co-teaching can be used in distance learning for both general and special education.
  • School Responses to COVID-19: ELL/Immigrant Considerations: Some of the students and families in Danette’s classes are English language learners. This resource provides some considerations to help educators, schools, and districts communicate with these members of their school community.
  • Kent ISD Distance Learning Supports for Students With Disabilities: Danette explains the close communications she has with families in this case study. This resource from Kent ISD in Michigan contains some resources that other educators may be able to provide to families or adapt for their own uses.

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