How Instructional Strategies for Reading have Changed Due to COVID

Kathryn Starke
Kathryn Starke
Professional development expert and National Urban Literacy Consultant; M.A. in Literacy and Culture
A group of elementary students listen to their teachers read a book aloud.

How has Reading Instruction Been Impacted?

Whether specialized in reading and literacy or not, many educators casually predicted that reading instruction would be significantly impacted by the global pandemic. The prediction has been confirmed, and the evidence is apparent this year in classrooms across America. A recent study showed that, on average, students were four months behind in reading by the end of the last school year.

Children across the country and the world experienced a combination of virtual, hybrid, and in-person learning for at least 14 months, depending on geographical location. The last “normal” school year for students without interruption was over two years ago. For students currently in seventh grade, their last normal school year was when they were in the fourth grade.

Now, more than ever, both students and teachers need support in reading instruction. Present-day, the children in third grade have a lack of foundational reading skills, which are usually heavily instructed in kindergarten, first, and second grade. These important skills may have been missed. Educators have to remind themselves of this imperative fact, that they may need to go backward in their reading instruction, and that it is okay.

Since reading is developmental, students must learn specific instructional strategies to be successful readers in a particular sequence. We have to fill in the gaps that students missed due to “unfinished learning” during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, upper grade and secondary teachers may have students reading on a lower level than they have taught, which means the teachers themselves also have to learn more about the foundational skills of reading that are essential to include in daily instruction.

Some students have not physically been in school for over two years either, which means adjusting to more structure, school rules, and sharing space with 15 to 20 peers is a new feeling again. While some students may have benefitted in extra academic support from parents during virtual reading instruction, they are expected to be completing work more independently in school. This will be a struggle for some students. A child’s emotional and social well-being, as well as their home life, were also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and these factors can also significantly impact reading instruction.

Now that we understand that reading instruction has been impacted due to the pandemic, we must determine what changes need to be made for the better.

Changes to Reading Instructional Strategies Since COVID

Research-based reading instructional strategies that have been proven effective in teaching reading should continue to be used in classrooms since the pandemic, although they have changed in a variety of ways.

Guided Reading Groups

Flexible guided reading groups are still the best way to provide differentiated reading instruction for all students. Using this model, teachers can strategically plan for various groups of students focusing on their own reading strengths and challenges in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

While small group reading instruction continues to be implemented on a daily basis, both the number of groups and the reading levels of the groups have changed. The most struggling readers should be seen the most to increase their reading growth.

Reading Levels

This year, however, each elementary school classroom is seeing a wider range of reading levels within one classroom. The reading levels of these groups have significantly dropped, and in many instances, more than 50% of classrooms have below-level readers this year. One reason is that in-person guided reading was unable to occur during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers may not have all the reading materials needed to support students at multiple levels. They may have to borrow books from a lower grade level or lower reading level from the school’s book room if they are fortunate enough to have one. They also have to learn how to instruct a student on an emergent or early reading level plan if they are used to having a majority of transitional or fluent readers in the past.

Phonological Awareness and Phonics

Another reading instructional strategy that should be a focus is targeted work in both phonological awareness and phonics. Oral language skills that focus on sound and letter relationships, syllables, blending, and segmenting are essential parts of phonological awareness. These early literacy skills are the building blocks for readers of all ages and were most likely not explicitly taught during the pandemic. These skills will be beneficial for any struggling reader in a whole group or small group setting.

Once students have a solid understanding of phonological awareness and the concept of words, the emphasis should be placed on phonics. Teachers can implement sorting activities with pictures and words to distinguish between word families and phonics patterns. Decodable books help with decoding, while sound boxes can support encoding. Both strategies need to be used so that students have a strong understanding of word structure and features. Like reading, there is a developmental sequence of phonics for students to master from kindergarten to seventh grade. Once students can decode and encode words successfully, they can read and write any word.

Differentiated Reading

Graduate reading and literacy instructional programs have focused on teaching students differentiated reading instructional practices through small group instruction for years and continue to focus on this component. It is essential that the programs focus on the foundational skills of reading, early literacy strategies, and word-work through phonological awareness and phonics. Offering a class that centers on simply early literacy and the foundations of reading is one change that many reading programs should consider since this is the initial step in teaching reading and one that every teacher should have knowledge in.

We need to recognize that every teacher is a reading teacher to some extent and provide them with the necessary support in reading instruction for the most success in the classroom.

Are you interested in helping students with reading from a more specialized position? Explore our reading and literacy programs and get started today!

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