Our 6-year-old grandson, who lives in Texas, recently discovered how much fun it is to read.
My wife Diane has been sending him packets of early reader books since he loves getting mail that is addressed to him. He likes “Pete the Cat” books and is especially fond of books about Marvel superheroes. Although he might condescend to read stories about Superman and Batman, his true loyalty is to Captain America, Ironman, Spiderman, and The Black Panther. Ben Domingue from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education says that reading fluency is “a gateway to the development of academic skills across all disciplines.”
He believes that children must learn to read effectively by third grade in order to access content from other subjects. Domingue was the lead investigator in a research project sponsored by The Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). His team found that due to the pandemic, last year, reading fluency among second and third graders was 30% below what is normally expected. This is especially worrisome since only 35% of fourth graders could read at or above their grade level before the pandemic.
The PACE study measured students’ skills throughout the year to determine how COVID-19 was affecting students at various stages of the pandemic. For example, students’ progress in the ability to accurately and rapidly read aloud basically halted in the spring of 2020 following the closure of many schools.
Improvements, however, were seen in these skills in the fall of 2020, but they were insufficient for students to recover from the spring losses. It appeared that these students didn’t develop any new reading skills during that spring and progress remained stagnant throughout the summer.
Students from low-income areas were impacted even more negatively, due to their lack of access to digital technology and parents who had to work outside the home. Also around 10% of students who were tested before the pandemic dropped out of sight. Researchers believe these students may not have been able to access the necessary technology to engage with school and may have fallen even further behind.
Many parents, however, failed to recognize this reading deficit. Only 14% of parents believed that their child had fallen significantly behind and less than a quarter said they planned to seek out tutoring or special programs to help their children.
When the 2020–21 school year began, only 40% of students were in districts that offered in-person instruction. In an effort to meet students’ educational needs, while keeping everyone safe, schools ended up providing a mixture of virtual, hybrid and in-person classes. Throughout the year, reading teachers were tasked with designing new methods to provide online instruction, while students struggled with schedule changes, fickle internet connections and Zoom fatigue.
The pandemic has interfered with the teaching of reading in a variety of ways. Online learning has a number of inherent barriers. Teachers have described sleepy children signing in to class still in their pajamas — one teacher said that some of them “have hair that looks like they’ve been shot out of a cannon.”
Others describe students yawning into the camera and blocking their cameras with various objects. Remote learning presents significant barriers for every subject and grade level, but many teachers and researchers believe that beginning reading instruction is especially challenging. Teaching young students how to read is an inherently social activity, typically requiring hands-on activities and face-to-face instruction.
Learning things like phonetics, word attack skills and sight vocabulary depends on activities such as reading out loud, interactive play and extensive dialogue to build vocabulary. It is also important to provide space and time for children to share favorite stories, books and their writing efforts with others. All of this is a challenge in virtual learning.
By the end of the last school year, however, more than 98% of students had access to some form of in-person learning. Even then there were still issues facing reading teachers.
For example, students need to see their teachers sounding out letters and words. Both masking and social distancing can interfere with this process. Also confrontations between parents and school staff regarding masking or social distancing can damage the often fragile parent-teacher alliance that is important in early reading success.
Keisha Allen from the University of Maryland says that it is very “important for teachers to consider and build upon the reading routines that families already have at home,” and that that families need to view themselves as “partners” with their child’s teachers. Parents also need to realize how critical everyday activities are in teaching children how to read, like reading with the child on a regular basis, telling bedtime stories and keeping age-appropriate reading books in the home.
Some examples of such books include pre-readers and early readers that are well known, but still popular. These include works such as, “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” a pre-kindergarten board book by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle, a pre-kindergarten board book once hailed as “one of the greatest childhood classics of all time.”
Other options include Sandra Keith Boynton’s funny early childhood board books like “The Going to Bed Book,” “Barnyard Dance,” and “Pajama Time,” Barbara Park’s clever “Junie B. Jones” series for grades first through third, the “Pete the Cat” early readers by James and Kimberly Dean, and Dr. Seuss classics such as “The Cat in the Hat” for second graders and “Green Eggs and Ham” for first graders.
I can still remember the very first word I ever learned to read without memorizing. It was the word “look.” I put the sounds together and the word just came out. It was like some kind of fog lifted and things were suddenly clear. Somehow I knew that this was important. I can remember this long ago revelation, but it would be nice if I remembered where I left my car keys.
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