Senior Corps Foster Grandparent, in Washington D.C. w Reading Partners. Credit: AmeriCorps Photos

Candace Spencer, a literacy tutor in Washington, D.C., logs onto her computer each weekday morning, opens recording software, smiles at the camera, and begins sounding out phonetics. The response is silence; in fact, there’s no one on the other end at all.

“Mentally, you picture your student in your head,” said Spencer, who works for The Literacy Lab, a non-profit focused on tutoring low-income students. “Maybe even some of the things that they would say in return.”

Before the pandemic, Spencer would arrive at one of the organization’s partner schools every morning to tutor kids one-on-one all day. Now, she pre-records literacy lessons for more than fifteen K-3 students. Spencer conducts live virtual sessions too, but the recorded videos are crucial; many of her students have parents who work two jobs, and the video lessons can be viewed whenever fits the family schedule.

“The students that are going to fare best throughout all of this are coming from households that have access to a lot of learning resources,” said Sarah Rose Dorton, Literacy Lab’s D.C. regional director. Most parents can’t afford the private tutors or live-in nannies that affluent families are splashing out for.

But that means that many of the students most in need are being left behind. NWEA, an education non-profit focused on learning assessments, estimated that reading gains would drop by 30 percent after about a semester of remote-only learning. According to an AP analysis of U.S. Census data, about one in five schoolchildren in D.C. live in households without internet access. Almost 30 percent lack a computer in their household, making it the worst in the nation for student technology access. The students who need literacy tutoring the most often lack the resources to learn remotely.

The long-term consequences could be stark. Poor literacy keeps people from graduating from high school and prevents them from studying at college. As many as 43 million adults in the U.S. have low literacy skills, according to a 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. This cohort suffers a raft of ostracizing repercussions—from low-confidence to difficulty finding work. Adults with low literacy are over-represented within incarcerated populations and among those receiving public assistance.

Many literacy tutoring organizations follow a similar model: tutors design weekly, individualized lessons for students who are behind their grade level in reading and comprehension. Tutors often meet with students at their schools and work with them until they are back on track. With many schools transitioning to virtual teaching, the in-person tutoring so important for building a rapport with students has become infeasible. Tutors spoke of the “terrifying” divide between those with and without access to technology. “These kids were behind to begin with, so you could be talking about a year’s slide in some cases,” said Lois Fingerhut, board chair and tutor at Reading Partners D.C. “It’s horrifying to me.”

Yet resourceful tutors are finding ways to keep their students learning. By developing virtual teaching techniques and adapting to new platforms, literacy tutors can coach the next generation of readers.

The good news is, it seems to be working for the kids who get it. The bad news is, not many do.

Some of the technical innovations for literacy tutoring during the pandemic have taken place in New York City, the one-time epicenter of the virus. When Katherine Stahl got notice from New York University she would have to close the NYU Literacy Clinic, which she leads, she was thankful the directive came on March 12, the day before spring break. Her tutors are members of NYU’s Literacy Specialist master’s program, and, through the clinic, they teach between six and ten children with complex reading needs for free every spring semester. Traditionally, each student would come to Washington Square Park for hour-long sessions twice a week. But this spring, the typical gains of 1-1.5 reading years during the semester of coaching felt impossible.

Stahl and her tutors spent spring break pivoting to online learning—calling parents, designing PowerPoints, diagramming on whiteboards, photographing book pages, sourcing and arranging various technologies, troubleshooting buggy apps, and crafting Zoom backgrounds. It was worth it. For many of these children, Stahl said, “the only instruction they were getting—period—was the hour of tutoring from us.”

One of the first things third-graders saw when they logged onto a lesson with Skye Russell, a tutor at NYU Literacy Clinic last semester, was a roadmap of the lesson decorated with cheerful photographs of rabbits. Then, students might move onto some animal-themed exercise passages: “Stinky Skunks, Millipedes and Beetles,” or “Smelly Goo Helps Opossums Play Dead.” Attention is a scarce commodity over video call; Russell often caught students’ eyes wandering off the screen.

“Sometimes students have a harder time focusing or, you know, maybe they’re hungry,” she said. The trick is to gamify the teaching. Russell might cycle through nine activities in an hour, broken up by quick phonetics games. The aim is to teach children the tools to decipher the words for themselves.

Without literacy, it’s difficult to be an active citizen. “Literacy permeates everything. We read a lot in a day—whether it’s street signs or menus,” said Russell. “Language is so powerful. Not only in reading, but in feeling like we can express ourselves and represent ourselves.”

Utilizing new digital teaching methods has been critical. Russell’s fiancé, a software engineer, helped her design an interactive portal for two-way phonetics activities, allowing Russell to simultaneously video chat and play interactive word games like jeopardy or bingo. “I will be using this when and if I go back in person,” said Russell, who adapts every lesson based on the child’s technology access.

The pandemic has threatened the progress of adult literacy learners, too. “Not everybody even has internet, or has a computer, or knows how to use those things,” said Amy Goodman, executive director of Washtenaw Literacy, a non-profit in Michigan offering tutoring for adults. Around 90 percent of learners who come to the organization live below the poverty line, Goodman explained. Some are native English speakers who never learned to read; others are learning English as a second language.

Goodman’s lessons look different now. Tutors work with whatever technology the learner has access to. “In some cases that’s a cell phone, in some cases that’s WhatsApp, in some cases that’s—God bless it—U.S. mail,” she said. Goodman’s organization developed technology training sessions to bridge the digital skills divide. “Anything from ‘What is a mouse?’ to ‘How do I use my cell phone for Zoom?’”

Like many literacy tutoring non-profits across the country, Reading Partners D.C. fast-tracked new digital resources to aid virtual tutoring. The organization offers free instruction for students in under-resourced schools, 79 percent of whom are low-income, and 90 percent of whom are students of color. The hope is that remote learning innovations, with the right investment, could enable tutors to coach more kids with fewer resources—“to expand our reach and work quickly to close the literacy divide,” said Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan, executive director of Reading Partners D.C. But that dream is a long way off.

At the end of the semester, Stahl usually hosts a celebration event at NYU for the students, who bring along parents, grandparents, and siblings to celebrate their achievements with pizza and lemonade. Coinciding with national poetry month, the party is an opportunity for the children to show off their new reading skills, reciting poems from writers including Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky.

This April, the party went ahead virtually. Stahl was delighted to share the news that—against the odds—the class had gained, on average, 1.5 reading years from the semester of online tutoring, as measured by a rigorous exit assessment. Every student achieved at least a year of growth, the same as last year. “I was shocked,” she told me.

The final poem of the celebration was read by a fourth-grade boy who, over the last two years, had struggled with text comprehension. His mother had called Stahl crying, desperate for support.

After the semester of virtual tutoring, he’d not only chosen an adult-level poem, Maya Angelou’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” but he had the courage to read it in front of everyone.

He started to read: “Shadows on the wall / Noises down the hall / Life doesn’t frighten me at all / Bad dogs barking loud / Big ghosts in a cloud / Life doesn’t frighten me at all…”

Several parents and tutors teared up hearing him read with ease. Stahl got emotional too. “What a perfect poem for the pandemic,” she thought. For Russell, it was evidence all their virtual planning and teaching had paid off.

But these students are the lucky ones. The country is not even close to universal student access to laptops and broadband. For cities, investing in broadband infrastructure tends to be cost effective so it usually gets the green light, said Morgan Ames, assistant adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies technological inequality. Expanding broadband to more rural areas requires a change in thinking. “There would have to be a pretty major tone shift in the very market-oriented approach the U.S. generally takes towards necessary infrastructure,” Ames told me. Broadband should be treated as a public good, like landlines or the postal service, she said. In July, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act, which includes $100 billion to expand broadband access in underserved and low-income areas. Still, it’s unlikely to pass the Senate if it remains Republican-controlled.

Local policies that could close the digital divide include public library or school technology-lending programs—enacted in Goodman’s district in Michigan and funded by the CARES Act—as well digital skills training in schools and more one-on-one literacy tutoring.

“It only works if students have access to reliable technology, reliable internet access,” said Jade Okunlola, senior program manager at Reading Partners D.C. Many low-income readers are at risk of being left behind if technology isn’t in their hands this year. “The students that we work with, they absolutely need intervention.”

Jem Bartholomew

Follow Jem on Twitter @jembartholomew. Jem Bartholomew is a freelance reporter based in London