Why are Some Students Behind in Reading Skills?

Kathryn Starke
Kathryn Starke
Professional development expert and National Urban Literacy Consultant; M.A. in Literacy and Culture
A young boy looking tired while trying to read a book.

Impact COVID had on Acquiring Reading Skills

Before the pandemic, only 34% of nine-year-old children in America were reading on grade level. The percentage decreases to 22% in low-income areas. COVID caused schools, in an unprecedented manner, to close across the country for a period of weeks in March 2020. The lingering pandemic then led many schools to reopen through either remote learning or a hybrid learning environment. These various teaching and learning scenarios significantly impacted our students from acquiring reading skills over the past year. Studies indicate that this year may continue to impact student learning for years to come.

Which Group of Students is Most Behind?

While all students experienced a loss in learning this year in every grade level, in every subject, and in every content area, our youngest students are currently the most behind in reading. Kindergarten, first, and second grade are the formative literacy years in elementary school that focus on teaching and learning the foundations of reading. When schools were closed, these young readers were unable to acquire these foundational reading skills needed to achieve literacy success. The foundations of reading mark the initial stages of the developmental reading process.

Without a doubt, it is evident and clear that both students and teachers worked harder than ever this year in such an unknown space. However, virtual reading instruction is not as effective as teaching children to read in a one-on-one or small group meeting in person. By implementing hands-on learning experiences and giving students the opportunity to hold a real book in their hands, children have greater success when learning to read. Since these two components are not available factors in virtual or remote learning, our youngest students have fallen behind in reading.

Are There Other Groups of Students Behind in Skills?

Yes, many students have fallen behind in some capacity this past year through no fault of their own or their teacher’s. Some groups of students, however, suffered more. Children who require special education services or accommodations through an individualized educational plan (IEP) also fell behind in remote learning settings. Their individualized needs were not met if their plan requires specific manipulatives or equipment to support their academic, emotional, or behavioral needs.

Children who are labeled or considered English language learners are another group of students who have fallen behind in skills. If a child does not have a parent at home who speaks English and can help the child comprehend directions or content during independent work, the child suffers and leads to more students falling behind.

Conversations around the lack of broadband access and technology were often in the news this year because it was an issue in a number of communities around the country. Students who did not have access to computers, one-to-one devices, or internet services to keep up with the virtual and remote learning demands at home are now behind. Many school districts purchased more educational technology for students to have asynchronous learning opportunities at home. Students who lacked access were unable to practice their reading skills on such platforms.

This year, parents around the country were instantly forced into a teaching role at home. Many parents also had to balance working from home or report to a specific location as an essential worker. Therefore, children who did not have a parent at home available to help them in the teaching and learning process may also be behind in skills. While some groups suffered more than others for various reasons, it is clear that every single student enrolled in K-12 institutions around the country experienced some sort of gap or loss in skills that will need to be remediated and retaught when schools resume in-person learning.

What Impact can Inadequate Reading Skills have on Students?

Reading opens doors and creates opportunity for students. Students can not succeed in any subject matter at any grade level without reading skills. Unfortunately, as students continue to get passed on to the next grade level with inadequate reading skills, they continue to struggle with both literacy-based instruction and academic content. Inadequate skills in phonological awareness and phonics can greatly impact decoding, spelling, and writing skills. Inadequate skills focused on vocabulary and reading comprehension will affect a students’ knowledge and understanding across content. Reading is a life skill, and inadequate reading skills have an impact on a student’s trajectory in life.

How to Help Student Progress

America had a problem in reading education before the pandemic; this unprecedented time in our country’s history has only magnified the issue that educators already knew. Reading research about quality instruction will continue to help our teachers and parents support our students progress. The term “unfinished learning” describes exactly what happened this year. Because of a global health circumstance of out our control, unfinished learning took place and needs to be addressed accordingly. Since America will not be retaining hundreds of thousands of students from kindergarten to twelfth grade, a variety of solutions must be put in place to support student growth and progress.

This is the best time to remove anything that does not help students in the developmental reading journey and to add something that provides value and excitement to student learning. Some schools and districts have encouraged teachers to loop with their students to the next grade level to seamlessly continue the teaching and learning process. While grade-level standards and expectations exist for equity purposes, teachers must be given the flexibility to adjust standards and pacing guides to meet students where they are in their learning.

Differentiated instruction should be present in all aspects of reading instruction in the classroom, across grade levels, and throughout the school. We need to create a learning environment for students that allows them to receive reteaching, remediation, practice, and new instructional objectives to support progress.

Summer reading, tutoring, and learning programs have been implemented in schools and organizations to support this ideal now. Creating school-based literacy programs to help parents understand how to help students progress at home are also beneficial in supporting any learning gaps or unfinished learning. We need to continue to monitor student progress and growth over the next few months and years to ensure that we are providing them with the opportunities to thrive in life as a reader.

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