EDUCATION + SCHOOLS

Many children hit hardest by the pandemic still need reading help

Sep 3, 2023, 7:00 AM | Updated: Sep 18, 2023, 12:10 pm

They were the kids most disrupted by the pandemic, the ones who were still learning to write their...

FILE - Books are displayed on a free library shelf inside the classroom of Richard Evans, a teacher at Hyde Park Elementary School, on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Stuck with distance learning as they began grade school, the kids who are now finishing elementary school were the ones most disrupted by COVID, with alarming delays in their reading ability. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Joshua Bessex, File)

 

They were the kids most disrupted by the pandemic, the ones who were still learning to write their names and tie their shoes when schools shut down in the spring of 2020.

Now, they’re the big kids at elementary schools across the United States. Many still need profound help overcoming the effects of the pandemic.

To catch up, schools have deployed a wide range of strategies. And among some incoming fourth-graders, there are encouraging signs of gains. But as this generation progresses, many will need extra reading support that schools are not as accustomed to providing for older students.

Beyond third grade, fewer teachers each year know how to help students who are lacking key foundational reading skills, said Elizabeth Albro, an executive at the U.S. Department of Education’s independent research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences.

“ Middle and high school teachers aren’t expecting to have to teach kids how to read,” Albro said.

Nationally, students suffered deep learning setbacks in reading and math during the pandemic. Last year’s third-graders, the kids who were in kindergarten when the pandemic started, lost more ground in reading than kids in older grades and were slower to catch up. With federal pandemic relief money, school systems added class time, brought on tutors, trained teachers in phonics instruction and found other ways to offer extra support to struggling readers.

But even after several years of recovery, an analysis of last year’s test scores by NWEA found that the average student would need the equivalent of 4.1 additional months of instruction to catch up to pre-COVID reading levels.

The one bright spot was for incoming fourth-graders, who made above-average gains and would need about two months of additional reading instruction to catch up. Karyn Lewis, who leads a team of education policy researchers at NWEA, described them as “a little bit less worse off.”

The school system in Niagara Falls, New York, is seeing similar results, said Marcia Capone, the district’s assessment administrator. The district brought on additional reading specialists, but Capone said it will take time to bring struggling students up to speed.

“I do not believe it’s hopeless, but it’s not something that’s going to occur in, say, three years’ time,” Capone said.

The problem for children who don’t master reading by third grade: School becomes that much harder in later grades, as reading becomes the foundation for everything else.

Schools have plenty of experience with older students who struggle. Even before the pandemic, only about a third of fourth graders scored as proficient in reading in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card.”

But the pandemic made it worse, particularly for low-income students and kids of color.

So some schools are targeting some upper-grade students with the “ science of reading,” a push to embrace research-backed strategies for reading based on phonics. Many new laws endorsing the phonics-based approach target students beyond third grade, according to a July report from the nonpartisan Albert Shanker Institute.

In Virginia, for instance, a law signed in March mandates extra help for struggling readers through eighth grade. It is one of the most aggressive efforts yet.

“There’s an implicit recognition,” wrote the authors of the Shanker report, “that reading improvement needs to address a greater span of grades, and that reading difficulties do not necessarily end in 3rd grade.”

That will require a major shift. Historically, phonics and help decoding words have gradually disappeared in the upper grades.

Most English teachers at that level are no more prepared to teach a student to read than a math teacher would be, said Miah Daughtery, who advocates for effective literacy instruction for the NWEA research organization.

“They’re prepared to teach text,” she said. “They’re prepared to teach literature, to analyze ideas, craft, story structure, make connections.”

The federal pandemic relief money that bolstered many schools’ academic recovery efforts soon will run out, leaving some experts less optimistic.

“We’re past the point where we’re likely to see a quick rebound,” said Dan Goldhaber, of the American Institutes for Research.

Teachers are reporting it is taking more time to get through material, according to Tonya Perry, the vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English. Some school systems are turning to programs that break grade-level subject matter down into a variety of reading levels, so strong and weak readers can still learn the concepts, she said.

“Now we have to spend more time building the foundation for what we’re asking students to do,” she said.

Early in the pandemic, some students repeated a grade. But that was only a short-term solution, often taken reluctantly because of concerns about the effect on kids’ social lives and academic futures. By last year, grade retention numbers were trending downward again.

One thing teachers can do is rely less on silent reading in class, and instead have small group activities in which strong and weak readers can be paired together, Daughtery said.

Lewis, of the NWEA, said the takeaway should not be that the COVID kids are beyond help.

“The message has to be: We’re doing the right things. We’re just not doing enough of it,” she said. “And we need to amp up and certainly not take our foot off the gas pedal anytime soon.”

___

Associated Press writers Brooke Schultz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, and Bianca Vázquez Toness in Boston contributed to this report.

___

The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Education + Schools

A lone American flag waves in the morning breeze Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2002, at the Bonneville Salt F...

Allessandra Harris

Water may be the solution to saving the salt flats

With the Bonneville Salt Flats eroding, newly discovered research may have found a way to save them.

3 days ago

utah capitol pictured, a new law centers adoption legal expenses open records utah...

Curt Gresseth

Bill creating Utah AI lab advances, would test tech, prevent missteps

SB 149 would create an AI lab and test technology while protecting the public in Utah.

4 days ago

The block U appears on the University of Utah, the school will no longer require sat or act scores...

Heather Peterson

University of Utah indefinitely pauses SAT and ACT admissions requirements

The University of Utah paused its SAT and ACT requirements two years ago, but the policy has now been extended indefinitely.

5 days ago

Shane Romano and Sami Sowers take a rest in the shade at Sunnyside Park in Salt Lake City, Tuesday,...

Mark Jackson

SLC Council considering proposal to lease section of neighborhood park to University of Utah

SLC Council is considering a proposal to lease a little over an acre of Sunnyside Park to the University of Utah for a new baseball stadium.

5 days ago

school bus is snowy, cache county school district apologized for not having a snow day...

Jessica Lowell

Cache County School District apologizes for not holding a snow day

The Cache County School District decided to hold a regular school day on Tuesday despite weather conditions. 

5 days ago

utah senate shown...

Heather Peterson

Bill regulating microschools in Utah heads to governor’s desk

Microschools in Utah would be treated more like a business and less like a school under a proposed law.

6 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Clouds over a red rock vista in Hurricane, Utah...

Wasatch Property Management

Why Southern Utah is a Retirement Paradise

Retirement in southern Utah offers plenty of cultural and recreational opportunities. Find out all that this region has to offer.

Many children hit hardest by the pandemic still need reading help