Foundational literacy is key to reversing post-COVID reading declines

Foundational literacy is key to reversing post-COVID reading declines

Our first look at long-term trends in reading and math assessments since the pandemic began affirm what many education professionals were anticipating. 

The National Association for Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” recently issued its signature report, which revealed that students assessed during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced significant declines in both mathematics and reading. NAEP’s 2022 data shows that “average scores at both grades [eighth and fourth] were not significantly different in comparison to the first reading assessment [20 years prior] in 1992.”

And while reading score declines as measured by various student assessments during COVID-19 are alarming, they are not unexpected given the profound obstacles students have faced.

Now, with data in hand, the critical work of getting students back on track toward reading on grade level by the fourth grade begins. The silver lining is: With a focus on creating more equitable opportunities for individualized support for students, they can and will catch up.

School systems have significant work to address inequitable opportunities and challenges that were already occurring prior to the time COVID-19 disrupted school operations in spring 2020, and we are aware that many students had inequitable access to the technology and quality instruction that other students received during the last two school years. Many other adults outside the school system can and must also play important roles in student learning and support, such as family members, tutors, counselors, and mental health professionals.

Certainly, addressing the needs of all students (especially after a global pandemic) could never boil down to a common formula, yet this is a critical time to ensure that proven methods for teaching foundational literacy skills enable educators, family members, tutors, and others to effectively support student literacy development.

1. Literacy instruction must be rooted in the science of reading

Reading is a vital foundational skill for navigating an increasingly complex world, yet it is not a natural skill. The process of making meaning from symbols on a page or a digital device is complex. For students who struggle with reading, it is even more crucial that they receive systematic instruction, consistent exposure to quality learning materials, and many opportunities for practice.

There’s a significant body of scientific research available to better understand how we learn to read. And the methodology with the most significant base of scientific evidence, often referred to as the “Simple View,” establishes that the process of comprehending what we read involves sounding out and recognizing words in addition to making meaning of the words strung together in a sentence. This process relies heavily on phonological awareness and phonics for word recognition and decoding along with explicit and consistent instruction.

Despite significant evidence showing that phonics-based instruction is the most effective method, it has not been broadly adopted within the U.S. education system. To get students back on track with their literacy development, science-based instruction should be central since it is proven to be the most effective path for most students.

2. Engaging and motivating students begins with a warm, positive, two-way relationship

Learning to read is not easy. It’s a skill that takes time, practice, patience, and structured support to become proficient. For this reason, students often respond well to positive encouragement and support from family members, educators, tutors, and other trusted allies. These trusting relationships may become particularly important when students develop negative feelings associated with reading, and could use some extra positive reinforcement.

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