COVID-19: prolonged school closures and distance learning dramatically impact children’s reading ability

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The ability to read is foundational to education, but prolonged school closures and distance learning due to the pandemic have imposed unique challenges on the teaching of many fundamental skills. When in-person classes resume, many students will likely need a period of catch-up learning, especially those who lag behind in basic reading skills.

New research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that people who were taught to read by receiving explicit instructions on the relationship between sounds and spelling experienced a dramatic improvement compared to learners who discovered this relationship naturally through the reading process.

These results contribute to an ongoing debate about how best to teach children to read.

A team of researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, tested both techniques on a group of 48 adults who, over an intensive two-week period, were taught to read a new language that was printed in unfamiliar symbols.

One half of the participants learned spelling-to-sound and spelling-to-meaning regularities solely through experience with reading the novel words during training.

The other half received a brief session of explicit instruction on these regularities before training commenced. At the end of the two-week period, both groups were given reading tests to gauge how well they had learned the new language.

“Our results were really striking. By the end of the two weeks, virtually all learners who had received explicit instruction were able to read words printed in the unfamiliar symbols,” said Kathleen Rastle, a researcher at Royal Holloway and lead author on the paper.

In contrast, despite up to 18 hours of experience with the new language, less than 25% of the “discovery learners” reached the same standard, and some showed very poor learning.

“Reading is the foundation for children’s learning throughout their schooling; for this reason, the learning loss that we are seeing is very concerning and has the potential for lifelong consequences,” said Rastle.

“The provision of evidence-based instructional methods has never been more important. Our research highlights the significance of explicit instruction in ensuring that all pupils have the opportunity to develop strong reading skills.”


To stop the spread of a novel coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, by 15 April 2020, 91.3% of children enrolled in formal schooling—1.5 billion children worldwide from 192 countries—were ordered to stay home [1].

The interruptions in formal in-person educational experiences adversely impacted school-age children [2]. In the United States, more than 130,000 school closings impacted almost 57 million children [3].

All fifty states in the U.S. had closed their schools for at least 3 weeks, and 49 states had closed all public and private schools for the rest of the 2019–2020 academic year [3]. In these unprecedented times, children will be out of school half as much as they were in school this academic year (approximately 92 days out of 180 days) [4].

Many countries have implemented the school closure policy as an immediate response to the COVID-19 outbreak to reduce social contact [1]. The effectiveness of school closures on the spread of the coronavirus remains unknown [5], yet the adverse consequences of school closures on children’s growth and development started to appear soon afterward [6,7,8].

Recent studies showed that children have fewer regular eating and sleeping patterns, longer screen time, fewer physical activities, increased stress, and less social interaction during school closures, which pose risk to their physical and mental health [8].

Among all the possible risks that COVID-19 school closures pose on children’s physical and mental health, the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed “interrupted learning” among the top adverse consequences of COVID-19 school closures [1].

Formal schooling – in person or remote – provides essential knowledge and skills for children’s growth and development [1]. Therefore, the interruption of formal education may cause a negative impact on children’s learning outcomes, especially for disadvantaged children with unequal access to educational resources [1].

The effect of school closure on academic achievement has been studied in the summer months. This well-documented “summer slump” shows that children lose the equivalent of approximately one month of reading abilities when they are out of school during the summer break [9].

The slump in reading achievement is reduced by attending summer schools, visiting libraries, and/or participating in reading-rich summer-based activities [9,10,11,12,13]. During the 2020 COVID-19 school closures, these activities were not available to children, so there is a strong motivation to determine options that will facilitate and maintain reading development.

In the current study, we use previous kindergarten and 1st grade reading scale scores in the U.S. to predict the reading ability gain in kindergarten children during COVID-19 school closures, using data from a large nationally representative longitudinal dataset collected by the National Center for Educational Research within the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education.

This dataset included children and families from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and racial/ethnic groups. One recent study used past data to predict learning rates in reading and math during COVID-19 school closures in 3rd–7th grade children in the U.S. [14].

They found that students only gained 63%–68% of grade-specific reading skills during the 2019–2020 spring semester because of the interruption of the semester [14].

In our study, we focus on the impact of school closures on kindergarten children, because children’s formal education experience begins at kindergarten, and, as such, children learn critical reading abilities then, such as phonological awareness, language structures, word decoding, and comprehension, which set the foundation for the future acquisition of reading abilities [15,16].

Furthermore, because of school closure and stay-at-home policies, children are spending more time at home with their parents than they normally have [8]. While staying at home may offer increased time to strengthen family bonds, parents are also facing more challenges parenting full-time [8]. For example, they are not only ensuring their children’s health and safety but also monitoring their physical and emotional development and facilitating learning at home [17].

Of note, the previous study on the loss of academic achievement during COVID-19 school closures did not provide evidence in the effectiveness of alternatives to in-person education, such as home schooling and remote learning or maintenance strategies such as book reading [14].

Previous studies showed that children from different socioeconomic status have different reading achievement during summer breaks [9,10]. Children from high socioeconomic backgrounds gained more reading abilities during summertime than children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

In this study, we are interested in whether these differences persist in COVID-19 school closures; therefore, we modeled the rates of reading ability gain in kindergarten children in families with different socioeconomic backgrounds. Our results may inform policy makers, educators, and families as they make decisions about the maintenance of children’s reading abilities during school closures, a likely regular occurrence for formal education until the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end.

reference link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7504163/


Original Research: Closed access.
The Dramatic Impact of Explicit Instruction on Learning to Read in a New Writing System” by Kathleen Rastle et al. Psychological Science

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