It’s ‘Alarming’: Children Are Severely Behind in Reading

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — The kindergarten crisis of last year, when millions of 5-year-olds spent months outside of classrooms, has become this year’s reading emergency.

As the pandemic enters its third year, a cluster of new studies now show that about a third of children in the youngest grades are missing reading benchmarks, up significantly from before the pandemic.

In Virginia, one study found that early reading skills were at a 20-year low this fall, which the researchers described as “alarming.”

In the Boston region, 60 percent of students at some high-poverty schools have been identified as at high risk for reading problems — twice the number of students as before the pandemic, according to Tiffany P. Hogan, director of the Speech and Language Literacy Lab at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston.

Children in every demographic group have been affected, but Black and Hispanic children, as well as those from low-income families, those with disabilities and those who are not fluent in English, have fallen the furthest behind.

“We’re in new territory,” Dr. Hogan said about the pandemic’s toll on reading. If children do not become competent readers by the end of elementary school, the risks are “pretty dramatic,” she said. Poor readers are more likely to drop out of high school, earn less money as adults and become involved in the criminal justice system.

The literacy crisis did not start with the pandemic. In 2019, results on national and international exams showed stagnant or declining American performance in reading, and widening gaps between high and low performers. The causes are multifaceted, but many experts point to a shortage of educators trained in phonics and phonemic awareness — the foundational skills of linking the sounds of spoken English to the letters that appear on the page.

The pandemic has compounded those issues.

Garensha John, a first-grade teacher at Capital Preparatory Harbor Lower School, helping students with a reading exercise. Given many students’ struggles with reading, the work has taken on “a level of urgency,” she said.Credit…Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

Children spent months out of the classroom, where they were supposed to learn the basics of reading — the ABCs, what sound a “b” or “ch” makes. Many first and second graders returned to classrooms needing to review parts of the kindergarten curriculum. But nearly half of public schools have teaching vacancies, especially in special education and the elementary grades, according to a federal survey conducted in December and January.

Even students with well-trained teachers have had far fewer hands-on hours with them than before the pandemic, which has been defined by closures, uneven access to online instruction, quarantine periods and — even on the best days — virus-related interruptions to regular classroom routines. Now, schools are under pressure to boost literacy as quickly as possible so students gain the reading skills they need to learn the rest of the curriculum, from math word problems to civics lessons. Billions of federal stimulus dollars are flowing to districts for tutoring and other supports, but their effect may be limited if schools cannot find quality staff members to hire.

At Capital Preparatory Harbor Lower School, a charter elementary school in the working-class coastal city of Bridgeport, Conn., about half of the first graders did not step foot inside a classroom during their crucial kindergarten year. Though the school building reopened in January 2021 on a hybrid schedule, many families, concerned about the virus, opted to continue full-time remote learning.

At the beginning of this school year, when all students returned to in-person learning, more than twice as many first graders as before the pandemic tested at kindergarten levels or below in their literacy skills, according to the administration.

Teachers started with the basics: how to orient and hold a book, and where the names of the author and illustrator could be found. The school is using federal stimulus dollars to create classroom libraries filled with titles that appeal to the largely Black and Hispanic students there, like “Firebird,” about a young, Black dancer by the ballerina Misty Copeland, and “Hair Love,” about a Black father styling his daughter’s hair.

The stimulus money is also paying for a new structured phonics curriculum called Fundations. Given the depth of many students’ struggles with reading, the work has taken on “a level of urgency,” said Garensha John, a first-grade teacher at the school. “Let’s get it done. As soon as they know this, they’ll excel.”

From the start of the pandemic, when schools abruptly shuttered in March 2020, math skills were clearly affected, while some early research suggested that students’ reading skills were holding steady, perhaps because more parents read with their children at home than practiced math.

But now, “What we’re seeing is that there are a lot of children who didn’t get the stimulation they need” during the pandemic to adequately develop early speech and reading skills, which are closely linked, Dr. Hogan said.

On a Wednesday morning in February, Mrs. John arrayed 13 6- and 7-year-olds on a rug in front of her, and led them through a series of well-rehearsed exercises sounding out simple written letter combinations and words. The children, clad in uniforms, chanted and clapped as they read in unison. The word of the day was a difficult one for many children to read and pronounce: “ships.”

Cameron Segui, 7, wearing a blue surgical mask and black glasses, placed his hand under his chin, a strategy students use to check if their mouths are positioned correctly. The sound “puh” should be made with the jaw relatively high up, for example, with the cheeks puffing out. “Zh” makes the jaw vibrate, but the “sh” and “s” sounds in “ships” should not.

Cameron Segui, 7, and the other students in Mrs. John’s class are learning to read with masks on.Credit…Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

Some parents and educators have argued that masks are partially responsible for language and literacy deficits. But researchers say that unlike the well-documented connection between school closures and decreased achievement, there is not yet strong evidence that masking has hindered the development of reading skills.

Such conclusions “would just be conjecture at this point,” said Nathan Clemens, a dyslexia expert at the University of Texas, Austin.

Later that day in Mrs. John’s class, students broke into small groups to practice writing and segmenting words into different sounds. Cameron, in one of the more advanced groups, was working on full sentences, and pointed proudly to his writing: “Ben had a red and tan hat,” he read.

The biggest problem for Capital Prep, and many other schools, is a shortage of educators like Mrs. John, 30, a Tufts University graduate who received formal training in phonics instruction in a previous job. Many graduates of teacher-preparation programs lack this skill set, and some of the nation’s most popular reading curriculums do not emphasize it, despite a large body of research showing it is crucial.

States like Mississippi, Alabama and Massachusetts have begun retraining teachers in phonics and decommissioning outdated curriculum materials. But some efforts were interrupted or slowed by the pandemic.

At Capital Prep, Mrs. John’s students have made big leaps since September. She serves as a model for colleagues, and the school is providing professional development. Still, in February, there were seven open teaching jobs out of 23 at the school, with some students being taught by inexperienced substitutes. Steve Perry, the founder of the Capital Prep charter school network, which has schools in both Connecticut and New York, recently took a trip to Puerto Rico to recruit educators.

Dr. Hogan, the Boston researcher, has a federal grant to provide intensive, small-group tutoring to children at high-poverty schools who are behind on early reading skills. She, too, has struggled to fill open positions, despite pushing the pay to up to $40 per hour from $15 per hour.

“I’m running on fumes,” she said.

It does not help that there is surging demand for private reading and speech therapy for children from affluent families. Fees can run up to $200 per hour, allowing some educators to leave the classroom entirely.

Tamara Cella, a phonics specialist who holds a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, left the New York City public school system in 2016, frustrated by the strain of principal turnover. In addition to a job at a New Jersey private school, she now moonlights as a phonics tutor for Brooklyn Letters, a company that provides in-home sessions.

“Tutoring pays extremely well,” Dr. Cella acknowledged.

She tutors children facing some of the same challenges as those at Capital Prep — missing core phonics skills, and difficulty transitioning from simple reading exercises to comprehending books. But Dr. Cella worries more about the students she no longer sees.

“That feeling of guilt comes over me,” she said. “What about the kids in the Bronx?”

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