Reading & Literacy

Early Reading Instruction Takes a Hit During COVID-19

By Sarah Schwartz — June 01, 2020 9 min read
New York City educator Lauren Olivieri teaches a reading lesson in an episode of Let's Learn NYC! The episodes, designed for students ages 3-8 and broadcast on public television, each include read-alouds and work on foundational reading skills.
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For Claudia Margaroli, teaching reading during the coronavirus school shutdowns has looked nothing like what she used to do in the classroom.

Instead of small group work, the 1st grade teacher at Charlotte East Language Academy in Charlotte, N.C., sees all her students in a whole-class Google Meet video chat twice a week.

She tries to answer the questions that students have in their district-issued packets, but keeping more than 30 wiggly 1st graders on task remotely is a challenge. When the video freezes, it’s hard to write words on her whiteboard for students to sound out, or decode.

She worries most about her students who were already struggling with foundational reading skills, like phonemic awareness—identifying and manipulating the sounds in spoken words—and phonics, the relationship between spoken sounds and written letters.

“Is this increasing the gap?” Margaroli asked. “Because the kids who are spending the most time on learning right now are kids whose parents are home, who can understand this reading packet in English.”

See Also: 9 States Make Adjustments for Early Reading Laws

While remote learning has presented challenges in every subject and grade level, some teachers and researchers say that early reading instruction is especially problematic.

Teaching young students how to read and write often requires hands-on activities, like manipulating letter tiles, or learning how to form their shapes. And before they can sound out words, children rely on read-alouds, interactive play, and conversations to learn vocabulary and build knowledge about the world. They can’t read a complex informational text on their own.

Researchers for the Northwest Evaluation Association project that coronavirus closures could lead to much greater learning loss in reading than usually occurs during the traditional “summer slide.”

But with the stress and trauma that many students are experiencing during the shutdowns, it’s possible that the effects could be even greater, said Emily Solari, a professor of reading education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development. And it’s hard to say how foundational skills development, specifically, will be affected, she added.

Teaching students how to read words is always critical, she said, because they have to be able to read to succeed in every subject. But this fall, the stakes will be higher.

“Now that we have kids that have lost access to critical face-to-face instruction in reading … this becomes even more urgent as we bring them back,” she said.

Ed Tech ‘For Better or Worse’

Researchers say there isn’t much information about what kind of remote teaching works best for early reading.

“Educational technology is often looked at with skepticism, but for better or worse in this era when there aren’t a lot of other choices … adaptive ed tech might have a place,” said Fumiko Hoeft, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut.

Hoeft and UConn professor Kenneth Pugh are currently conducting a study to test the effectiveness of GraphoLearn, a foundational skills reading app, in a distance learning environment. Hoeft also plans to use data from the study to “quantify the COVID slide,” and see how much it deviates from estimates.

“It’s hard to predict, in many ways, what the outcomes will be,” she said. It’s possible that they might find differences in learning loss by zip code, she said, or even by what distance learning approach different schools used.

Nell K. Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, has created two instructional videos for reading teachers who are teaching over Zoom: One demonstrating how to teach phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary lessons, and the other showcasing two small group lessons—one in phonics instruction, and one designed to build students’ knowledge about food chains.

“Those are all things we would do in a face to face environment in a classroom, and things that we can do—provided we have high-speed internet and devices—in a virtual environment,” Duke said.

Some teachers have taken this approach, transferring their lessons almost wholesale from the classroom to the screen.

Brittany Reeves, a 1st grade teacher in Mountain Home, Ark., meets for one-on-one, half-hour Zoom sessions with most of her students once a week. She said she’s able to touch on every aspect of a lesson she would have done in the classroom, though in a slightly abbreviated way.

‘Crash Course’ in Reading for Parents

For students who don’t have internet or devices at home, Reeves had to come up with other options. At school, students use beads to represent the individual phonemes, or smallest units of sound, in words. She’s explained to parents how to do the activity using whatever small objects they have at home—grains of rice can work, she said.

Giving parents this kind of explicit instruction can be helpful, said Duke. Without parent or teacher support, early elementary students may not get far in paper-and-pencil exercises on their own, Duke said. “I’m not aware of any research showing that young children can be provided with a packet and have that provide a measurable positive impact on their literacy development,” she said.

Some reading researchers have started developing resources for this purpose. The Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University put out a series of videos on its YouTube channel, demonstrating foundational skills activities and comprehension lessons that parents can do at home with their children at different grade levels.

Margaroli, the teacher in North Carolina, tries to support parents as they work with their children on the district-provided packets. But she also feels guilty because she can only help those who she’s in contact with, and she hasn’t been able to consistently reach all of her families.

Coaching parents comes with its own set of challenges, too. While students are with her on Zoom, Margaroli sometimes overhears parents sounding out words incorrectly, using letter names, rather than letter sounds, for example. But she’s so grateful that families are devoting time to lessons at all that she hesitates to correct them. “It’s difficult to teach the parents during this time as well,” Margaroli said. “[It’s] a crash course in how to teach reading.”

Some states and districts have turned to an older technology: public television.

In New York City, the local public broadcasting channel runs hourlong episodes of Let’s Learn NYC!, a supplement to schools’ remote learning, every weekday. The lessons, designed for students ages 3-8 and delivered by New York City educators, each include read-alouds and work on foundational reading skills, such as phonemic awareness and phonics.

“We are trying to follow what the science of reading tells us as much as possible, given that these are 12- to 14-minute segments,” said Andrew Fletcher, the senior executive director of early literacy at the New York City Department of Education.

Starting in June, Let’s Learn NYC! is expanding to two hours each day—one for preschool and and kindergarten students, and the other for grades 1-2. The expanded programming will allow for more differentiation, Fletcher said, but the episodes can’t match the individualized attention kids could get in a classroom. “It’s still a huge developmental continuum, where we’re attempting to meet thousands of children’s needs,” he said.

Balancing Instruction and Safety

Figuring out where students need support, in foundational skills and content knowledge, will be many schools’ top instructional priority when classes are back in session this fall.

“Teachers are really going to have to be masters of data analysis,” said Zanovia Curtis, the supervisor of elementary education and federal programs for the West Feliciana Parish Schools in Francisville, La. Her district is planning to start the year with diagnostic assessments administered in person if safety guidelines allow, or online if not.

Curtis hopes that small groups of students could come in for intervention instruction, as broadband access continues to be a barrier to live lessons in their rural community, she said. “There’s just a lot of variables in the air that we’re trying to hammer down right now,” she said.

Such logistical and safety concerns can have a big effect on early reading instruction, said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s education commissioner. For example: How can teachers deliver phonemic awareness and phonics lessons with masks on?

“In order to learn to read, you actually need to be able to see each other’s mouths,” she said.

The state is thinking about challenges like this as it develops guidance for next year, Schwinn said.

Earlier this year, before schools closed in response to the pandemic, the Tennessee education department proposed major legislation requiring all K-3 teachers to know about evidence-based reading instruction. The department is still “firmly committed” to these goals, Schwinn said.

In June, the department plans to release a free, digital foundational skills supplement for pre-K-2, for teachers to use as a resource whether classes are in person or online next year. Districts’ plans for 2020-21 will include dedicated sections for early literacy development, Schwinn said.

In Arkansas, the state department of education assembled teams of teachers to create an “Academic Playbook” for the beginning of next school year, which includes optional unit plans for essential standards that they weren’t able to cover before the shutdowns.

In early grades English/language arts, the current-year teachers developed lessons for the next grade for the 2020-21 school year. For example, 2nd grade teachers created catch-up lessons for 3rd graders in the fall to cover 2nd grade standards they missed in the spring, said Missy Walley, the director of special projects in the Arkansas Department of Education’s division of elementary and secondary education.

“Some of the anxiety is ‘I’m a 3rd grade teacher and I know my standards, but now you’re asking me to teach second grade standards?’ ” Walley said.

Margaroli, the 1st grade teacher in North Carolina, worries about this: Will she be expected to teach end-of-year kindergarten skills next year?

But she’s even more concerned about how social distancing restrictions might affect her teaching.

In her reading classroom, students switch from whole-group lessons to different small groups several times a day, so that they can get more individualized support. Will that kind of movement be allowed next year, she wonders?

She’s trying to wrap her mind around that idea that being student-centered might mean putting safety above best practice in the fall. “[It] isn’t just about instruction, it’s also about wellbeing,” she said. “Shifting that focus is hard.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2020 edition of Education Week as Early Reading Instruction Takes a Hit During COVID-19


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