A new study finds that younger students have fallen behind on reading skills

March 09, 2021

As students in some parts of the United States approach nearly a year without in-person school, new research suggests that the reading skills of young children have suffered during the pandemic.

The research, a preliminary national study from the group Policy Analysis for California Education, found that as of late fall, second graders were 26 percent behind where they would have been, absent the pandemic, in their ability to read aloud accurately and quickly. Third graders were 33 percent behind.

Those differences were equivalent to being able to read seven to eight fewer words per minute accurately.

Some previous research has come to a different conclusion, suggesting that reading skills in third to eighth grade have proven more durable than many experts feared.

The new study relied on audio recordings of one to two minutes, from 98,000 children in 111 school districts across 22 states. The samples were collected by Literably, an online assessment tool. School buildings in the districts included in the study were more likely to be fully or partly closed than those in the average American district.

Crucially, the students lost the expected reading gains in the spring of 2020, when schools abruptly shut down at the outset of the pandemic. Students resumed improving their reading skills in the fall, suggesting schools and teachers improved in their ability to deliver instruction online or in hybrid learning. But those gains were insufficient to make up for the previous losses.

The researchers did not study whether students were able to make up for the spring losses in districts that were more likely to be open in the fall.

Notably, students in lower-achieving school districts included in the study lost more learning than those in higher-achieving districts, suggesting that the pandemic has widened existing achievement gaps. And 10 percent of students who were recorded in the spring were missing from the audio assessments in the fall.

While some of those children may have been enrolled in high-quality alternatives, such as private schools, others may have been absent because of difficulties with access to remote learning, suggesting that learning loss could be even greater for the most vulnerable students.

Heather J. Hough, an author of the working paper, said schools may need to provide tutoring and extra instructional time to help students catch up. But she warned against an approach that focused only on academics, saying that young children needed recess, playtime and social time — some of which have been in short supply during the pandemic — to be able to absorb new information effectively.

“That is as critical to early reading development as the technical skills,” she said.