Younger students fall behind most with school disruptions: experts

Students in Grade 3 and under experienced the greatest learning loss during COVID-19 disruptions — on average, between six and eight months of reading skills, new research from the University of Alberta shows.

A Winnipeg reading clinician suggests those numbers are even more stark in Manitoba, given that the province’s students lag behind their provincial neighbours in standardized literacy test scores.

In early grades, teachers focus on fundamental literacy skills to pave a path for independent readers.

It’s for that reason education professor George Georgiou said he believes his findings indicate students in Grade 4 and higher have retained skills and learned more than their younger peers throughout the pandemic.

“The school closures have impacted mostly the younger kids and particularly, the struggling readers,” said Georgiou, the author of two new studies about reading learning loss, during a recent phone call from Edmonton.

Georgiou measured reading scores — based on tests of accuracy, fluency and comprehension — of more than 4,000 pupils in every grade, between 1 and 9, in Edmonton schools this fall.

He compared the 2020 averages to data collected over the past three years.

Georgiou discovered grades 1, 2 and 3 students had negative scores, on average, which suggest they are behind where they would have been had the disruptions not happened by approximately six and eight months. From Grade 4 and onwards, the scores were close to zero or slightly positive — a surprising outcome.

Another project of Georgiou’s, which aims to teach Grade 1 educators in Edmonton how best to teach reading, complemented his findings.

In September 2019, with support from Alberta Education, Georgiou started following a group of 1,560 students in Edmonton and Fort Vermilion, Alta. He found approximately 500 students were “at risk of reading difficulties.”

Georgiou found and re-tested 409 of the struggling students this fall to review their progress. Only 85 students were reading at grade-level.

“It should have been the other way around — only 85 kids should have been struggling,” he said, adding that overall, there is “great volatility” between school scores, with students in lower-income neighbourhoods more likely to struggle than those in affluent communities.

Citing standardized test scores and socio-economic factors, Valdine Bjornson, founder of the Reading and Learning Clinic of Manitoba, said she was already concerned about Manitoba students’ literacy rates before the pandemic.

Manitoba high schoolers’ reading test scores ranked last compared with their counterparts in all other provinces in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment results. Every three years, the assessment compares reading, math and science tests from 15-year-olds around the world.

Similar to the PISA results, learning loss in Manitoba has become a controversial subject in education circles. Some educators argue that student resilience amid a pandemic should be highlighted rather than achievement gaps.

Both Georgiou and Bjornson take issue with this perspective; the reading intervention experts argue it’s critical to intervene now to help younger students catch up, or else they may struggle later in life.

“The world doesn’t wait for kids or adults who have literacy skills that are not up to par,” Bjornson said.



Her prescription? A renewed focus on teaching foundational skills, including how to understand the alphabetic principle in English and spelling patterns, and encouraging students to enjoy stories and literature.

The Reading and Learning Clinic of Manitoba has reported a spike in interest for its foundational phonics course this year, Bjornson said, adding it’s clear teachers want to help students bridge the pandemic gaps.

At the University of Alberta, Georgiou also insists parents pitch in. He recommends parents read to their kids daily, for at least 20 to 30 minutes.
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