Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Pandemic Will Worsen Our Reading Problem. Another Outcome Is Possible

Universal literacy is a complex—but achievable—goal
By Emily Freitag — July 06, 2021 | Corrected: July 14, 2021 4 min read
Illustration of teachers helping students climb books.
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Corrected: A previous version of this essay misstated the name of Emily Freitag’s organization.

The data on the foundational literacy skills of the class of 2032—the children who were in kindergarten during the shutdown and 1st graders during this bumpy and inequitable 2020-21 school year—are terrifying. According to one commonly used reading assessment, the DIBELS benchmark measures, the percentage of students falling into the “well-below benchmark” category that predicts future reading failure grew from 26 percent in December 2019 to 43 percent in December 2020. All demographic subgroups were affected, but Black and Hispanic students were particularly impacted. There is no precedent for this kind of decline in the last 20 years of using these reading measures.

The foundational learning in early years makes future learning possible and builds confidence in students’ ability to learn. Delayed and disrupted schooling in K-2 creates gaps that compound over time. The patterns of education outcomes that followed past school closures caused by outbreaks or natural disasters suggest that we will see these heart-wrenching results continue in the class of 2032’s schooling data, income, and lifetime outcomes.

If these historical patterns hold true, we can expect everything from 3rd grade state test scores to Algebra 1 completion to high school graduation will show similarly stark and inequitable declines. Postsecondary completion, lifetime earnings, incarceration rates, and lifetime expectancy will correlate. The children of the class of 2032 will feel the effects. Our country will be able to measure the impact in contracted GDP.

However, another outcome is possible. While data predict these trends, no child is condemned to this path. We know there are teachers who help children beat these odds every year. If this can be done for some children, it can be done for all children. One hundred percent of the class of 2032 could learn to read with command and fluency. We might not be able to do it by the end of their 3rd grade year, but we can do it by the end of 5th grade. It is well within our collective capability to give every student in the class of 2032 and every class that follows command of reading.

We know more about how children learn to read than we do about any other content area. We know that learning to read starts by hearing and manipulating sounds. We know students then connect symbols to those sounds, unlocking a code we use to interpret and communicate in print. The English-language code is not simple—there are 44 unique sounds—but we know the best order in which to teach children those sounds. Teaching a child to read is both complex and doable.

The real challenge is how to engineer effective literacy instruction at scale. Every school system has individual teachers who are famous for helping every single child learn to read, and some schools consistently produce more readers than others. But very few schools and no school systems can deliver a guarantee.

The components of a functional early-literacy system are clear: high-quality, systematic curriculum; trained teachers; targeted assessments; effective data meetings; and sufficient time on task. There are also clear processes to assess, group, and instruct students, as well as monitor their progress. What we don’t yet know is how to help schools combine the component parts and move through the steps with sufficient precision to produce reliable results for every child, in every classroom.

If school leaders set the intention to ensure 100 percent of the class of 2032 achieves mastery of foundational reading skills, the path would require at least three things:

  • Leaders must track results with discipline, accountability, and the expectation that success is possible. This involves looking at school- and systemwide data every quarter, identifying by name the students who need support, conveying a clear message to teams that 100 percent of students are expected to get to proficiency, and continuously trying new approaches and improving the offerings until every student is successful.
  • Leaders must ensure every school has the key components of a cohesive literacy instructional program. Teachers, leaders, and support staff need to be trained on the science of reading. Every school needs a strong, evidence-based foundational reading curriculum as the basis for instruction. The curriculum must be supported by effective screeners and diagnostic assessments to indicate which students are falling behind and pinpoint where students are in the progression of foundational skills. Educators need sufficient time in the day for instruction and collaborative planning. And each school needs someone who knows how to make sure these pieces work together effectively.
  • Leaders must obsess over concrete progress. Progress comes when every teacher, caretaker, and staff member who engages with a student’s reading instruction can identify the exact letters, sounds, and sound-spelling patterns that child is working on in a given two-week interval. Anything more general will not power the progress students need. Getting everyone on the same page with this level of specificity will take concentrated and consistent leadership. Every school needs a leader who is focused on little else than literacy instruction, and every school system needs to allocate real focus and attention across the system.

Supporting every student to be able to read with proficiency is hard, but we can do hard things. In the past century, we eradicated smallpox and doubled the human lifespan; in the last year, we developed and scaled vaccines for a novel virus. Educators are a profoundly capable group. We can eradicate illiteracy.

The stakes are high, and the alarm bells are ringing. If we cannot support our young learners during this critical time, we will all lose out. If we commit to get 100 percent of the class of 2032 to read on grade level by the end of 5th grade, we will find a way. And we will see the benefits to our country and communities for generations to come.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as What It Would Take to Eradicate Illiteracy

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