Pandemic putting young readers behind the learning curve, says education expert

Younger online learners need extra support from teachers and parents, especially if they already struggled with reading before COVID-19, suggests U of A professor.

Education Professor George Georgiou

Education professor George Georgiou analyzed reading ability scores from Alberta students in grades 1 to 3 and found that those who struggled with reading before the pandemic have had a harder time keeping up as lessons have moved online. (Photo: Supplied)

Last spring’s COVID-19 school closures put young, struggling readers further behind in their skills—and the situation won’t get better unless there are changes to online and at-home instruction, suggests a University of Alberta reading expert.

A comparison of reading ability scores among students in grades 1 to 3 in a sampling of Alberta school districts before and after COVID-19 classroom shutdowns showed that those who already had reading problems were up to six months behind where they should have been, said George Georgiou, a Faculty of Education professor and director of the J.P. Das Centre on Developmental and Learning Disabilities.

The deficit was more pronounced among struggling readers that Georgiou also looked at; only 85 out of 409 struggling Grade 1 readers who were tested before school closures and retested this fall had improved to become average readers as they started Grade 2.

“That number should have been the other way around,” he said, noting that all the statistics indicate a worrisome trend about the pandemic’s impact in early grades and for the most vulnerable student populations—such as those who were struggling in reading prior to COVID-19.

“Because the schools were closed and many students went online, those already struggling with their reading skills didn’t get the pull-out, small group intervention when they needed it, beyond regular classroom instruction, and their reading skills got worse over time.”

“I’m worried the number of poor readers will increase over time and if this continues, it means that schools will have to invest significant dollars in supporting these children for the rest of their school lives.”

Studies have already shown that 75 per cent of children who don’t overcome their reading difficulties by Grade 3 never catch up later on, Georgiou noted.

“In these difficult, unprecedented circumstances we live in right now, it's everyone’s job to help their kids.”

George Georgiou

His findings were gleaned from regular reading assessments done by 25 schools within three school divisions in Edmonton and the surrounding area, involving more than 4,000 students per grade level from grades 1 to 9.

Georgiou measured the shutdown’s impact by having the schools calculate the average standard score in sounding out words, reading fluency and comprehension for each grade level in September of 2017, 2018 and 2019, and then compared that average with the scores on the same tasks collected in September 2020, when schools reopened.

Students in grades 4 and higher fared better during the shutdown, with readers performing either at or better than their grade level by about four to six months, Georgiou’s analysis showed.

“A possible reason for that difference is that younger children are in the process of learning to read and require explicit and systematic instruction from their teachers, which was disrupted because of school closures. In contrast, older children in the phase of ‘reading to learn’ don’t need the same type of explicit instruction and can do well on their own,” he suggested.

Online instruction time for struggling readers needs to include specific plans for targeted intervention, he added. “We need to optimize the time they’ll be online with a teacher and be strategic in what we cover in each lesson.”

Online lessons for younger grades should include daily phonics instruction to strengthen their reading skills, and teachers from the same grade levels need to collaborate on how to improve the literacy performance of their students. “We need to build a community of practice so that everybody comes to the same table to solve the same issue.”

Parents can also give their children extra help—and will have to as long as the pandemic continues, he added.

“In these difficult, unprecedented circumstances we live in right now, it's everyone’s job to help their kids.”

Free online reading intervention programs such as Abracadabra, Sight Words and ReadWorks can be delivered by parents, and they can also make sure their children read grade-appropriate books on their own every single day, Georgiou said.

Spending 20 minutes per day reading with their children is just as important, he added.

“It helps establish a child’s reading habits, and if parents listen to a child mispronouncing a word, they have the opportunity to correct the child and teach about new words.”

Sharing reading time also lets parents ask their youngsters about the stories they’re reading, which builds their comprehension.