Has the COVID-19 crisis affected reading development?

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“Hello reader! Go ahead and read this sentence aloud. And maybe this one too.” Did you, by any chance, time yourself? If so, you have measured your “oral reading fluency.” This simple measure—the number of words read aloud correctly divided by the length of time it took—is used to chart the development of reading skills in young learners. Despite its simplicity, it is one of the best overall summary measures of reading development.

In work with Heather Hough, David Lang, and Jason Yeatman at Stanford University, I use data from such an assessment, administered by Literably in over 100 US school districts to approximately 100,000 students, to study the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ success in learning to read (ages 5-8 years).

COVID-19 has caused unprecedented disruptions to schooling worldwide. Given the scale of these disruptions, there is substantial concern about “learning loss.” Learning loss, in this case, refers to the difference between the abilities that a student would have developed in the context of standard educational practice and the student’s actual abilities following the COVID-19-related disruptions. We are able to use continuously collected measures of oral reading fluency to examine how reading skills have evolved before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stark differences have been observed in students’ growth in the spring and fall of 2020, relative to the same students’ growth in previous years.

“Following the onset of COVID-19 school closures, students showed no growth in reading fluency over the next five months.”

In the spring of 2020, following the onset of COVID-19 school closures, students showed no growth in reading fluency over the next five months. Given how suddenly schools were closed in March 2020, and that educators had no opportunity to prepare for remote teaching, disruptions were to be expected. But these relative losses are severe. No growth in the spring and summer means that students have fallen about a third of a year behind where they should be in terms of reading development.

By the fall of 2020 the situation had changed, and students’ reading fluency was growing at normal rates. This is reassuring and suggests that the flexibility shown by educators in the face of novel challenges posed by COVID-19 is leading to tangible improvement in a crucial skill.

However, the return to nearly average gains by the fall was not sufficient to recoup spring’s losses. Our analysis suggests three reasons for continued concern over learning losses:

  1. COVID-19 impacts are causing novel disparities in reading skills. In the fall of 2020, students in school districts that tend to do less well on traditional standardized tests were slower to develop their reading skills and thus falling further behind their peers.
  2. A substantial share of students have been disconnected from learning during the pandemic; consequently, they are not being assessed for reading fluency. As a result, we are likely to be underestimating the true effects. More importantly, these students may have difficulty catching up and may suffer the consequences well into the future.
  3. The full extent of learning loss during the pandemic will not be understood for months or even years. If students are unable to get back on track, they may experience delays in the development of other reading-related skills, making it difficult to access future academic content.

The pandemic has clearly had a negative impact on students’ reading development. If no action is taken, this could lead to long-term damage. But this doesn’t need to be the case; many children are again learning to read at a normal rate even during the pandemic and we should work to identify what is happening at those schools so that effective techniques can be distributed broadly.

“Educational leaders must act now to ensure that educators have the resources they need, especially in the most disadvantaged school districts.”

Educational leaders must act now to ensure that educators have the resources they need, especially in the most disadvantaged school districts. In addition to providing targeted funding, it will be important to identify the practices that accelerate learning for students that have fallen behind, and to build policy and support structures for implementing these practices at scale.

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