How to Build Print Materials Into Distance Learning

Tips for teachers to incorporate paper-based materials in remote classes.

Children are spending more time on their devices than ever before. Even pre-pandemic, screen time was increasing: A 2019 study by Common Sense Media shows that, not including schoolwork, half of tweens spend between two to eight hours a day on screens.

Finding ways to incorporate printed and physical materials into learning can give everyone — including students — a break from screens.

“It requires thought and creativity, but there are lots of ways to have academic learning off the screen,” says Deborah Rosenfeld, an education researcher for the nonprofit consulting firm Education Development Center (EDC). “You have to practice and try different things.”

As you’re thinking about shopping for back-to-school supplies, use these ideas to integrate print and non-screen learning into your teaching.

Use books when possible. Studies show that students of all ages tend to absorb material better when they read a printed page rather than a screen. When possible, get textbooks home to students instead of sending them PDFs. And, encourage students to reserve copies of physical books from the library; many libraries let you to reserve online and do curbside pickup, making it easier to get new reading materials.

Encourage printing. Instead of asking students to complete a worksheet digitally, ask them to print it out, so they can complete it in pencil or pen. Kids can photograph or scan the worksheet and return it. Then, you can share your screen and review the results via a video call. 

Use what’s in the house. Since many kids are home based for the time being, encourage the use of household materials for learning:

  • Teach kids about fractions by asking them to look through cookbooks to find a recipe and double it.
  • Have them measure the number of feet or inches from their front door to the refrigerator to practice math skills.
  • Ask them to review junk mail or catalogs to look for run-on sentences or grammar mistakes. 

Create a choice board. Encourage students to make a hard copy of the day’s activities. A choice board can be a bulletin board, white board or even just a piece of paper with a grid of what they need to accomplish during the week. Students can refer to it throughout the day and choose the order in which they complete the tasks. 

Integrate art. Suggest that your students gather whatever paper, pencils, construction paper, paints and other materials they have, so that they can work creatively while they’re learning. Tie the project to the concepts they’re studying, and reassure them that the project will help them master the work. For example, working with shapes can help students explore math concepts such as measurements, fractions and patterns.

Offer printed notices. While some parents might prefer emails, social media posts or notes on your school’s website, others will like printed copies of notices, schedules and reminders. Make them easily available to share with family members or other caregivers. 

Encourage journaling. Keeping a journal can give students a creative outlet and encourage them to be more confident in how they express themselves. Writing prompts like, “What was your favorite thing about the summer?” with a set number of words or sentences can help them practice writing, punctuation and grammar. Also, consider using freewriting, and let them pick the topic.

One of the best ways to get students away from screens is to get them moving. If possible, help students build movement into their day. Encourage them to take a five-minute walk and report back on what they saw, or step outside and make a mental list of the sounds they heard. These small “outings” can provide an important break for the mind and body. If schedules allow, encourage them to get some fresh air with a parent or guardian after completing their schoolwork, so everyone can take a break together after a long day, notes Rosenfeld. “Movement is so important for helping to manage energy and maintain focus,” she says. 

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