Due to the global pandemic most of us are sheltering in place and an estimated 91% of children globally are out of school[1]. Advocates for global education are working from safe places looking for ways to keep children engaged and reading. A common reaction is to share links to online learning materials. The good news is that there are many high-quality online books out there. However, we want to encourage you to think before you link and match the link to the purpose and audience.

Considerations

Consider the following when sharing links to online books:

Establish the purpose:  Online books are one way to increase access to reading materials. The result is children reading from, or having someone else read to them, from an electronic device (We assume in this instance that there is no printing and distribution of online materials.). 

Ensure that the intended users have access:  Know the types of electronic devices used by the intended audience and understand limitations around internet speed, data costs, and multiple family members sharing a device.  What works in a capital city with fast internet will be different from a location with less reliable network. We encourage you to operationalize the link with the end user in mind. Have someone with slow internet try the resource before you recommend it broadly. Plus, confirm that the resource is accessible on the available devices. A website with flashy features that function on a laptop might not perform the same on a phone.  If the recommended resource is deep within a website, user guidance should include how to navigate to it by language and by level where relevant. While some book websites share a few appealing examples, the best ones are those that are licensed through Creative Commons, which means that the books can be shared or modified (Some of our favorites linked below). 

Consider the content:   The goal of sharing resource links is to keep children reading but the way to do that will vary developmentally. Children learning to decode have needs different from fluent readers who use books to learn information.  When children are first learning to read, it is important that the words are simple, and sentences are not too long. But once children are fluent readers, controlling words and sentence length is not as important, they should be encouraged to read widely. But don’t dismiss a book that is “above” a child’s reading level as it can be used for a family read aloud. Prioritize sites that provide exposure to a range of genres.  Narrative text often dominates so any opportunities for informational text supports new learning and engages those kids who are not interested in stories.  To the extent possible, aim for sharing resources that are in the languages relevant to the context.

Alternatives

Even with a strong network, effective hardware, and tech-savvy individuals, too much screen time is not recommended[2].  Ways to advance literacy skills without screens include:  

  • Encourage oral story telling.
  • Narrate daily activities (such as making dinner) by adult family members.
  • Play oral games that create lists or play with words.
  • Have beginning readers find letters in the surroundings, including in nature.
  • With older children, listen to radio programs or the news and have them recount the main messages.
  • Keep journals of daily activities, observations, or emotions.
     

We expect that one benefit of the pandemic will be ingenuity that leads to improvements in distance and self-directed learning.  But in the interim, there are many resources to keep even the youngest learners engaged and reading if we understand the purpose, access, and content.  Just remember, to think before you link!

This article co-written by Peggy Dubeck, Tracy Brunette and Ana Robledo. 

You can find some of the RTI-produced teacher and pupil materials, including leveled readers and big books here

Recommended Online Books

African Storybook 

FreeLearning (New: June, 2020)

Global Digital Library 

Let’s Read

Nal’Ibali 

Storyweaver 

Worldreader  

 

[2] Licata, J. I., & Baker, A. E. (2017). Updated guidelines on digital media use by children. Journal of the American Academy of PAs, 30(4), 1-3.

Cover photo (c) RTI International, All Rights Reserved. 

About the Expert

dubeck's picture
Senior Literacy Researcher RTI International