Childhood analysis

Learning to read in the time of COVID | Columns

Our six year old grandson, who lives in Texas, recently discovered how fun it is to read.

My wife Diane sent him packets of first reading books because he loves receiving mail addressed to him. He loves the “Pete the Cat” books and particularly likes the books on Marvel superheroes. While he may deign to read stories about Superman and Batman, his true loyalty is to Captain America, Ironman, Spiderman, and The Black Panther. Ben Domingue, of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, says fluency in reading is “a gateway to the development of academic skills in all disciplines.”

He believes that children must learn to read effectively from the third grade in order to access content from other subjects. Domingue was the principal investigator of a research project sponsored by The Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). His team found that because of the pandemic, last year reading proficiency among second and third graders was 30% lower than what is normally expected. This is particularly concerning since only 35% of fourth graders could read at or above their grade level before the pandemic.

The PACE study measured the skills of students throughout the year to determine how COVID-19 was affecting students at different stages of the pandemic. For example, student progress in the ability to read aloud accurately and quickly came to a virtual standstill 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 losses of the spring. As it turned out, these students had not developed new reading skills during this spring and progress remained stagnant throughout the summer. Students from disadvantaged neighborhoods were impacted even more negatively, due to their lack of digital access and parents who had to work outside the home. In addition, about 10% of students who were tested before the pandemic lost their sight. Researchers believe these students may not have been able to access the technology needed to engage in school and may have fallen further behind.

However, many parents did not recognize this reading deficit. Only 14% of parents thought their child had fallen significantly behind and less than a quarter said they planned to seek private lessons or special programs to help their children.

At the start of the 2020-21 school year, only 40% of students were in districts that offered in-person instruction. In an effort to meet the educational needs of students while keeping everyone safe, schools have come to offer a mix of virtual, hybrid, and in-person lessons. Throughout the year, reading teachers were tasked with devising new methods of delivering online instruction, as students struggled with schedule changes, unstable internet connections, and Zoom fatigue.

The pandemic has hampered the teaching of reading in a number of ways. Online learning has a number of inherent barriers. Teachers have described sleeping children logging into the classroom still in their pajamas – one teacher said some of them “have hair that looks like it was pulled from a cannon.” Others describe students yawning in front of the camera and blocking their cameras with various objects. Distance learning presents significant barriers for every subject and grade level, but many teachers and researchers believe that starting to teach reading is particularly difficult. Teaching young students to read is an inherently social activity, usually requiring hands-on activities and face-to-face instruction.

Learning things like phonics, word attack skills, and visual vocabulary depend on activities such as reading aloud, interactive play, and in-depth dialogue to develop vocabulary. It is also important to provide space and time for children to share their favorite stories, books, and writing efforts with others. All of this is a challenge in virtual learning.

By the end of the last school year, however, over 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 pronounce letters and words. Masking and social distancing can interfere with this process. Additionally, confrontations between parents and school staff over masking or social distancing can damage the often fragile parent-teacher alliance that is important in early reading success.

Keisha Allen of the University of Maryland says it is very “important that teachers consider and build on the reading routines that families already have at home,” and that families should see themselves as “Partners” with their child’s teachers. Parents should also understand how essential daily activities are in teaching children to read, such as reading regularly with the child, telling bedtime stories, and keeping age-appropriate reading books at home.

Some examples of such books include Pre-Readers and Early Readers which are well known, but still popular. These include works such as “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”, a pre-kindergarten book by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle, a pre-kindergarten book, formerly hailed as “one of the greatest childhood classics of all time.”

Other options include Sandra Keith Boynton’s fun early childhood books like “The Going to Bed Book”, “Barnyard Dance” and “Pajama Time”, Barbara Park’s clever “Junie B. Jones” series for students. from first to third, the “Pete the Cat” early readers from 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 year students.

I still remember the very first word I learned to read without memorizing it. It was the word “look”. I put the sounds together and the word just came out. It was as if some sort of fog had lifted and things were suddenly clear. In a way, I knew it was important. I remember this revelation from a long time ago, but it would be nice if I remembered where I left my car keys.

TERRY STAWAR, ed. D. lives in Jeffersonville is the outgoing CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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