Children’s Reading Skills Back on Track
Encouraging findings from Alberta after three years of COVID-19
It is now THREE years since governments around the world announced the shutdown of schools to protect students and teachers from COVID-19. According to UNESCO (2020), more than 1.5 billion children from more than 190 countries were sent home in March 2020 to receive instruction remotely, if at all. Since then, educators, parents, and policymakers have been interested in knowing how much the disruptions COVID-19 brought to regular reading instruction impacted children’s reading performance. In this article, we expand on a previous report on children’s reading performance during the first six months of the pandemic (see Georgiou, 2021) to include information from 20 K–9 schools in Alberta from September 2019 until they returned to regular classroom instruction in September 2022.
Findings from the rest of the world
The results of most published studies in different parts of the world indicate that COVID-19 had a significant impact on children’s reading performance, particularly in early grades. For example, in a recent study covering five million Grade 3 to 8 students in the U.S., Kuhfeld et al. (2023) reported that the average fall 2021 reading scores on a standardized reading measure were .09 to .17 standard deviations lower relative to same-grade scores in the fall of 2019. Compared to the growth a typical (pre-pandemic) student makes in these grades, these test score drops represent roughly a third of a school year’s worth of growth. Similarly, working with a sample of Finnish children, Lerkkanen et al. (2022) reported that the growth in reading from Grade 1 to 4 was slower for their COVID-19 cohort than for their pre-COVID-19 cohort.
The same body of research has also revealed that the effect of COVID-19 has not been equal for different groups of students. For example, students from lower socio-economic (SES) backgrounds (or students attending high-poverty schools) seem to have been influenced more than students from higher SES backgrounds. There is also some evidence that students with reading disabilities were more impacted than students without reading disabilities. Finally, Kuhfeld et al. (2022) found that in the U.S., the effect of COVID-19 was greater for Hispanic, American Indian and Alaskan Native, and Black students than for Asian American or White students.1
Findings from Canada
Evidence on how COVID-19 has impacted Canadian students is still scarce and we know of only two studies reporting on how Canadian students were affected, one conducted in Alberta and one conducted in Quebec.
The Alberta study: Georgiou (2021) compared the performance of approximately 4,000 English-speaking students from Grades 2 to 9 in September 2020 (right after the schools re-opened) to the performance of same-grade students in the three years prior to the school closures. Georgiou found that only the performance of younger children (Grades 2 and 3) was lower compared to previous years. Interestingly, the performance of older children (Grades 4 to 9) either remained the same or improved during the pandemic. On the basis of these findings, the Ministry of Education in Alberta (Alberta Education) asked schools to test all their Grade 1 to 3 students in reading and provided substantial funding to support schools in providing reading interventions to the most affected children in early grades.
The Quebec study: Côté and Haeck (personal communication, June 3, 2022) compared the performance of Grade 4 French-speaking students in Quebec using the results from the reading ministerial exam in June 2019 (prior to the pandemic) and June 2021 (a year into the pandemic). They found a substantial decrease in the average performance of students between the two measurement points (77.3 percent in 2019 vs. 69 percent in 2021).
Back on track?
We have been studying reading development and difficulties in Alberta for the past 20 years. Because of this, we had measures in place in multiple schools to also examine the impact of COVID-19. For the purpose of this article, we examined:
- 20 schools from three school divisions in Alberta
- About 6,500 Grade 1 to 9 students assessed in September 2019, September 2020, September 2021, and September 2022
- Data on three norm-referenced assessments (Test of Word Reading Efficiency-2, Test of Silent Word Reading Fluency-2, and Test of Silent Reading Efficiency and Comprehension).
To better understand the impact of COVID-19, it is important to break down the time into three separate periods. The first time period covers September 2019 to September 2020. This time period captures the time when schools closed indefinitely after the COVID-19 outbreak and only remote instruction was available to children. The second period (September 2020 to September 2021) is the academic year when schools re-opened, but children had to quarantine for 10 to 14 days if they had COVID-19 and whole classes shifted between face-to-face and online teaching depending on the number of positive cases in each class. Finally, the third time period (from September 2021 to September 2022) is when most teaching took place face-to-face and there were relatively fewer learning disruptions.
- From September 2019 to September 2020: The reading performance of students from Grades 1 to 3 declined in all tasks. The performance of students in Grades 4 to 9 remained the same or improved slightly. These results replicate those reported in Georgiou (2021).
- From September 2020 to September 2021: The performance of students in all grade levels declined and the decline was larger in reading efficiency and comprehension than in basic word reading skills. Similar results have been reported by Kuhfeld et al. (2022) for U.S. students using different measures of reading skills.
- From September 2021 to September 2022: The performance of students in all grade levels improved and was comparable to the performance in the same tasks prior to the pandemic (in September 2019).
These findings suggest that the students in these 20 schools might be back on track in reading following three years of COVID-19 pandemic.
Four keys to recovery
There are four key factors we believe that have helped the students in this sample to get back on track. We summarize them below.
Use of evidence-based practices in the participating schools
Obviously, we wouldn’t have any data to present here unless these schools were collecting data from their students on a yearly basis using norm-referenced assessments. In addition, teachers in these schools have been participating in ongoing professional development seminars with us focusing on best practices in teaching reading, and have been sharing their experiences from field-testing different strategies as part of their communities of practice (see Georgiou et al., 2020, for more information). Principals have also been meeting regularly to discuss the results of their assessments and to identify areas in which their teachers would benefit from further professional development. It is important to note here that the evidence-based practices were in place in the sample schools well before COVID-19. This means that when Alberta Education called teachers in the province to focus their instruction on foundational skills in learning to read (e.g. phonological awareness, phonics, reading fluency), the teachers in these schools did not have to change what they were already successfully doing. This likely had a positive impact on their students’ reading performance and contributed to a quicker recovery.
Early screening and intervention
Alberta Education mandated screening of all Grade 1 to 3 children using reliable and valid assessments of foundational reading skills. Traditionally, most school divisions in Alberta have been using various benchmark assessments to identify struggling readers, despite research showing that they are neither reliable nor accurate (Burns et al., 2015; Parker et al., 2015). Alberta Education did not approve these assessments for accessing additional funding. In addition, Alberta Education shared a reading intervention program with all schools in the province that included 80 lessons on phonological awareness and phonics, and asked schools to report on children’s growth over time. To our knowledge, this is the first time a province mandated early literacy screening and provided free intervention materials to all schools; both policies should continue in the future.
Alberta Education provided $45 million additional funding to schools to address any learning losses. To our knowledge, this is the largest amount spent in the country and assuming the money was used for the intended purpose (i.e. intervention), it may explain why students in our sample schools caught up quickly. Alberta Education also funded research projects on early intervention and the results of these projects provided valuable information on how to address learning losses. In one of these projects, we provided intervention to 365 Grade 2 and 3 struggling readers, and after 4.5 months of intervention, 80 percent of them had improved about 1.5 years in their reading. Some of these children were in the schools included in the study reported above. Funding of evidence-based reading interventions in conjunction with frequent monitoring of students’ progress using reliable and accurate measures should continue in the future.
Discussions around evidence-based practices
The discussions taking place around the country on what should be done to address learning losses drew teachers’ attention to evidence-based practices in reading. For example, among the recommendations given to teachers through different media was one that reading researchers have long asked for: Provide systematic and explicit phonics instruction in early grades. This recommendation is now also included in the new Alberta English Language Arts curriculum for the early primary years.
The positive results on recovery come from schools that use evidence-based early literacy instructional practices and have provided their teachers with professional development on these practices that they may not have received in their teacher education programs. At this time, we don’t yet have reliable information on COVID-19 recovery from schools that are behind in transitioning to evidence-based early literacy programs. Finally, the promising results we see in our schools in Alberta reflect positively on the policy implemented by Alberta Education. By mandating early screening and funding additional interventions, and by making reliable assessments and effective intervention programs available to schools, Alberta Education essentially acted on the recommendations provided by the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Right to Read report.
Burns, M. K., Pulles, S. M., et al. (2015). Accuracy of student performance while reading leveled books rated at their instructional level by a reading inventory. Journal of School Psychology, 53, 437–445.
Georgiou, G. (2021). Has COVID-19 impacted children’s reading scores? The Reading League Journal, 2, 34–39.
Georgiou, G., Kushnir, G., & Parrila, R. (2020). Moving the needle on literacy: Lessons learned from a school where literacy rates have improved over time. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 66, 347–359. doi.org/10.11575/ajer.v66i3.56988
Kuhfeld, M., Lewis, K., & Peltier, T. (2023). Reading achievement declines during the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence from 5 million U.S. students in Grades 3–8. Reading and Writing. doi.org/10.1007/s11145-022-10345-8
Lerkkanen, M.-K., Pakarinen, E., et al. (2022). Reading and math skills development among Finnish primary school children before and after COVID-19 school closure. Reading and Writing. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11145-022-10358-3
Parker, D. C., Zaslofsky, A. F., et al. (2015). A brief report of the diagnostic accuracy of oral reading fluency and reading inventory levels for reading failure risk among second- and third-grade students. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 31, 56-67.
UNESCO. (2020). COVID-19 impact on education. https://en.unesco.org/COVID19/educationresponse
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 These are the descriptors used in the study.