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Monday, February 06, 2023

Pandemic learning losses lead to reading struggles

Students lost 9 weeks of foundational literacy skills

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced students and teachers into remote learning, data shows more students are struggling to read and comprehend grade-level texts in Florida due to instructional gaps.

The Florida Standards Assessment annually assessed public school students’ mastery of the grade-level curriculum in grades three through 10. Scores range from a level one to a level five, in which the Florida Department of Education defines a level one as inadequate and highly likely to need substantial support; a level three as satisfactory and a passing score; and a level five as mastery.

This is the only data that will show pandemic losses because the state implemented a new progress monitoring testing model called the Florida Assessment of Student Thinking based on a new set of standards.

In 65 of the 67 school districts, the percentage of third-grade students who scored a level one on the English Language Arts assessment increased since the start of the pandemic.

Alachua County Public Schools district follows this statewide trend. ACPS’ percentage of students performing at the lowest achievement level in third-grade ELA increased seven points from 2019 to 2022.

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But Paige Pullen, UF College of Education literary officer and research professor, said pandemic losses can be recovered.

“It is not too late to teach them,” Pullen said. “But they will require explicit systematic instruction in foundational literacy skills to be able to catch up.” 

Third grade is a milestone year in most states for education, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Instruction typically shifts from learning to read to reading to learn,” Pullen said. 

Grades K-2 focus on learning to read, and students are taught fundamental literacy skills rooted in phonics, an instructional approach that teaches the systematic relationship between letters and sounds and how to form words. 

Phonological awareness, which sets the stage for decoding, blending and, ultimately, word reading, develops from age 4 to 9, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education.

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When schools shifted to remote learning in the fourth quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, students, especially those who didn’t have access to stable internet or technology, lost nine weeks of instructional time learning these foundational literacy skills.

First grade is a critical year for students because it is when they become fluent readers, ACPS Director of Curriculum Kevin Berry said. At the beginning of the year, students learn individual sounds, and by the year’s end, students can read passages fluently.

The third-graders who took their first statewide assessment in spring of 2022 and are struggling to read were first-graders who lost this key instructional time in 2020, Berry said. The change to virtual instruction occurred at the point when students usually learn how to read embedded texts, a fundamental skill to begin reading to learn.

“Those students who were in second grade last year or third grade last year … had … a really significant impact to their literacy because of the change in instruction,” Berry said. From the adjustment to virtual learning to pandemic-related absences, these changes led to instructional loss.

And when students returned to the classroom, safety protocols such as mask wearing and limited small-group instruction continued to impact students’ learning experience.

“If you’re wearing masks, children can’t see the shape of your mouth,” Pullen said, which is important to learn how to make and articulate sounds.

Such instructional interruptions continued for over a year and a half. However, students can still recover and receive support.

In ACPS, coronavirus relief funds and partnerships introduced new intervention programs. The district has seen results in its K-2 students through their performance on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, an assessment that evaluates foundational literacy skills.  

The district attributes the literacy success in the younger grades to the implementation of the University of Florida Literacy Institute Foundations as part of the K-2 core phonics curriculum. UFLI is one of ACPS’ primary partners in its quest to increase student literacy.

Learning to read can be broken down into two buckets: decoding, or word recognition, and language comprehension.

The UFLI Foundations curriculum focuses on decoding, Berry said. Language comprehension is taught through a program called Benchmark Advance that provides students with social studies- and science-based texts to focus on vocabulary, comprehension and content.

Third- through sixth-grade students also read Benchmark Advance texts, but core phonics isn’t a part of ELA curriculum.

This year, the district has incorporated UFLI Foundations as an intervention for struggling students in third through fifth grade. Schools have staff with special training to incorporate this curriculum into small-group instruction.

Core phonics instruction like UFLI Foundations will not make up for everything, Pullen said. “They need to then apply those phonics skills … to real reading,” she said. Students should read text at their appropriate reading level; practice making words; and connect reading and writing daily.

ACPS’ interventions and tutoring programs aim to do this.

“It’s really looking at what the specific students need and then designing a program around what that looks like,” Berry said. “We have district level teams that help support schools with what that instruction looks like.”

In addition to incorporating foundational literacy skills into its intervention blocks, ACPS offers high-dosage tutoring, which provides small-group or individualized tutoring to work on specific skills students lack.

Although third-graders who took the FSA last year received some interventions, they didn’t have access to curricula like UFLI that has been implemented with additional coronavirus recovery funding.

The success of these interventions has yet to be evaluated with student scores on an end-of-year assessment like the FSA.

“There will continue to be outcomes that are different than what we would hope for,” Berry said. “But we are excited about the different additional levels of support that we are able to provide.”

Contact Emma at eberhmann@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmabehrmann.

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Emma Behrmann

Emma Behrmann is a third-year journalism major and The Alligator’s metro desk editor for the Spring 2023 semester. She loves bodybuilding and spends most of her free time at the gym.


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