Stanford researchers looked at changes in literacy skills in elementary school students. (Shutterstock)

Stanford researchers looked at changes in literacy skills in elementary school students. (Shutterstock)

Study finds elementary students’ reading skills stalled after spring school closures

A new study by researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that students currently in second and third grade are now approximately 30% behind what would be expected in a typical year in reading fluency.

“It seems that these students, in general, didn’t develop any reading skills during the spring. Growth stalled when schooling was interrupted and remained stagnant through the summer,” said Ben Domingue, an assistant professor at Stanford GSE and first author on the study.

The study, which included some Bay Area school districts, looked at the results of a reading assessment given to first through fourth graders nationwide, which found that the students’ development of oral reading fluency — the ability to quickly and accurately read aloud – largely stopped in spring 2020, following abrupt school closures due to COVID-19.

Though reading fluency picked up in the fall, Domingue says that “that growth was not robust enough to make up for the gaps from the spring.”

The study differed from previous learning loss studies because it measured students’ skills periodically throughout the year, as opposed to annually. The reading assessment was conducted remotely, and recorded students while they read aloud from a device, giving them a score based on a combination of human transcription and speech recognition.

The researchers examined trends in the students’ growth back to 2018, and noticed steady growth until the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020. At that point it flattened and remained flat throughout the summer, indicating that “children’s reading abilities had stopped.”

“It was flat in an absolute sense, not just relative to years past,” Domingue said.

Additionally, the study found that there was an inequitable impact, with students in historically lower-achieving districts — which often serve a greater share of low-income and minority students — developing reading skills at a slower rate than those in higher-achieving ones. The study adds that these are populations that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic in ways that impinge on their readiness to learn, including lack of access to computers, reliable internet access or a parent at home.

“It’s quite likely that lower-achieving schools are dealing with a whole battery of problems that educators in more affluent districts aren’t facing,” Domingue said. “But there was still growth. The teachers were probably moving heaven and earth to help their kids learn to read, and it’s reflected in the gains. But it’s important to recognize the differential impact on students.”

The researchers said reading fluency is fundamental for broad academic development, because the skill is needed to learn many different subjects.

“Reading is kind of a gateway to the development of academic skills across all disciplines,” Domingue said. “It’s a key that opens all of the doors. If a kid can’t read effectively by third grade or so, they’re unlikely to be able to access content in their other courses.”

Though the findings of the study are troubling, it provides evidence that teachers eventually figured out “ways to teach and assess young students’ reading skills,” resulting in the reading fluency growth in fall 2020, which was similar to pre-pandemic times.

“We can build on this research by identifying practices that accelerate learning for students who’ve fallen behind, and by making sure schools have the resources they need,” said Heather Hough, executive director of PACE and coauthor of the study. “These findings are worrisome, but they do not need to be catastrophic.”

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