Expert Viewpoint

These 5 Proven Methods for Teaching Foundational Literacy are Vital to Overcoming Pandemic Losses

Our first look at long-term trends in reading and math assessments since the pandemic began affirm what many education professionals were anticipating.

The National Association for Educational Progress, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” recently issued its signature report, which revealed that students assessed during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced significant declines in both mathematics and reading. NAEP’s 2022 data shows “Average scores at both grades [8th and 4th] were not significantly different in comparison to the first reading assessment [20 years prior] in 1992.”

And while reading score declines as measured by various student assessments during COVID-19 are alarming, they are not unexpected given the profound obstacles students have faced.

Now, with data in hand, the critical work begins of getting students back on track toward reading on grade level by the fourth grade. The silver lining is: with a focus on creating more equitable opportunities for individualized support for students, they can and will catch up.

School systems have significant work to address inequitable opportunities and challenges that were already occurring prior to the time COVID-19 disrupted school operations in spring 2020, and we are aware that many students had inequitable access to the technology and quality instruction that other students received during the last two school years. Many other adults outside the school system can and must also play important roles in student learning and support such as family members, tutors, counselors, and mental health professionals.

Certainly, addressing the needs of all students (especially after a global pandemic) could never boil down to a common formula, yet this is a critical time to ensure that proven methods for teaching foundational literacy skills enable educators, family members, tutors, and others to effectively support student literacy development.

Proven Methods for Teaching Foundational Literacy

1) Literacy instruction must be rooted in the science of reading.

Reading is a vital foundational skill for navigating an increasingly complex world, yet it is not a natural skill. The process of making meaning from symbols on a page or a digital device is complex. For students who struggle with reading, it is even more crucial that they receive systematic instruction, consistent exposure to quality learning materials, and many opportunities for practice.

There’s a significant body of scientific research available to better understand how we learn to read. And the methodology with the most significant base of scientific evidence, often referred to as the “Simple View,” establishes that the process of comprehending what we read involves sounding out and recognizing words in addition to making meaning of the words strung together in a sentence. This process relies heavily on phonological awareness and phonics for word recognition and decoding along with explicit and consistent instruction.

Despite significant evidence showing that phonics-based instruction is the most effective method, it has not been broadly adopted within the U.S. education system. To get students back on track with their literacy development, science-based instruction should be central, since it is proven to be the most effective path for most students.

2) Engaging and motivating students begins with a warm, positive, two-way relationship.

Learning to read is not easy. It’s a skill that takes time, practice, patience, and structured support to become proficient. For this reason, students often respond well to positive encouragement and support from family members, educators, tutors, and other trusted allies. These trusting relationships may become particularly important when students develop negative feelings associated with reading, and could use some extra positive reinforcement.

Data from a small-scale study implemented by Reading Partners and Child Trends showed that warm and positive student-tutor relationships were favorably associated with students’ development of persistence and school engagement.

3) Individualized practice and regular support are often necessary to maximize skill acquisition.

A key element of science-based reading instruction is creating opportunities for plenty of practice. In addition, the best data on high impact tutoring demonstrate that one-on-one or small group tutoring in alignment with evidence-based practices can maximize students’ literacy growth. Practicing literacy skills with a trusted adult can offer both positive encouragement and targeted support based on a child’s unique strengths and needs.

The practice that students need should be individualized and include, at a minimum, the following elements:

  • Recognizing letters and sounds of the alphabet
  • Applying phonics knowledge to decode words
  • Re-reading passages to increase fluent reading
  • Comprehending while reading informational and narrative texts that better represent the diversity of students in our schools and their lived experiences

While providing regular individualized support can be challenging for teachers in a typical classroom setting (with the average class size of 25 or more students), there are a number of additional ways to facilitate individualized support. One-on-one and small group support can come from school-based literacy intervention programs, evidence-based community tutoring programs such as Reading Partners or Reading and Math Inc., parents and caregivers at home, and within after-school programs.

Unfortunately, many individualized programs and support models are more accessible to children with greater resources and higher levels of privilege. Which leads to the next fundamental principle: access to educational resources must be equitable.

4) Equitable literacy education is about increasing access to quality opportunities based on need, not equal distribution of resources.

Student opportunities to excel in education are often linked to access: Do they attend schools with certified teachers? Do they have access to a private tutor? Do they have access to books that reflect who they are, what their families are like, and what interests them? Do they have independent reading time in school and during out-of-school hours? Do they have one-on-one support for reading that’s based in their native language?

The recent long-term NAEP trend assessment for 9-year-old students showed that reading scores decreased more significantly among students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (6 point drop) when compared to students who are not eligible for NSLP (3 point drop), increasing the gap to 29 points between the two groups. In addition, NAEP reported reading scores for white, Black, and Hispanic students and lower-performing students also declined significantly from 2020.

Although the NAEP data contain nuances and more needs to be done to understand which students are most impacted, these data trends suggest that students with more financial resources experienced less significant impacts from disrupted learning and have more access to literacy skill-building resources in general.

Significant and persistent variation among student populations based on factors such as income and race are red flags for inequity. One way to significantly change trends in low literacy rates is to make literacy resources and targeted supports more equitably distributed, and to ensure targeted programs are implemented with quality and fidelity to an evidence-based program model. The advantage to this approach is that we can channel proportionally more and better resources toward students with the least access to opportunity and highest need.

5) Literacy instruction and support must be multifaceted.

Implementing a solutions-based approach to help young students learn to read in this post-pandemic era will require a multifaceted approach that includes a broad ecosystem of overlapping resources for students.

Teachers alone, parents and caregivers alone, or policy makers alone cannot solve a decades-long literacy challenge that at times in the past was getting better but now has been compounded by the unprecedented disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts are re-thinking how instruction occurs during the school day, and many are considering what they learned during the past two years to incorporate technology during and outside the school day.

Regardless of those decisions, schools will want to ensure that intentional literacy instruction aligned to the science of reading occurs during the school day for all students. Providing high quality, in-service professional development on foundational literacy instruction to their educators and following up to ensure improved instruction is happening in classrooms, with supportive coaching and feedback, also will be important to success.

In addition, district administrators and school leaders should partner with national, state, and community-based programs to ensure support is provided consistently for students that most need individualized instruction. Empowering parents and other family members and caregivers as well with what they want and need in the way of tools and resources to guide children’s learning is another critical part of the multifaceted support that students need right now.

In the end, we need our institutions, communities, and individuals working together to rally around students with great instruction, coordinated supports, and mindsets focused on equitable opportunities to put students on the path to reading proficiency. Initiatives such as the National Partnership for Student Success, Campaign for Grade Level Reading, and Get Ready Set are already developing cohesive coalitions to facilitate progress. If we continue to act together, realizing that our children’s limitless futures pave a brighter path for our nation and world, then an upward trend is not just possible but an imperative that should be prioritized.