By Dr. Carolyn Brown, Chief Academic Officer

Elija held back tears as he tried to continue sounding out words. He was too frustrated to go on. As a fourth grader, he knew something was wrong and he felt like it was his fault that reading wasn’t getting easier. His teacher was also discouraged and felt unsuccessful. Elija and his teacher aren’t alone. Fourth graders across the country are experiencing reading problems that are remarkably similar and appear intractable.

Post-pandemic, as we were working with many educators we began seeing a consistent and disturbing pattern in our WordFlight screening data. While children in grades 4-6 are generally showing declines in proficiency in foundational reading skills, we saw the greatest downward shift in the 4th graders. Working with teachers and administrators to better understand the instructional needs of these students allowed us to hear first-hand about the accompanying behavioral and self-confidence issues that are surfacing. In the fall of 2023, we are seeing more 4th graders struggling with automatic word recognition than we usually see in 2nd graders.

Although the schools vary in size, location and populations served, educators are struggling every day to address the learning and behavioral barriers holding these students back. Today’s fourth graders are different from any other generation. These students were in the latter half of their kindergarten year when the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the country. No other cohort has ever experienced such a universal disruption in learning. 

While the impact of the pandemic was widespread and all districts suffered, national data show that the decline in test scores was not equally distributed (NAEP, 2022; AnnieCaseyFoundation). Schools that serve the most vulnerable children (those from high poverty, of color, with special needs, who are English learners and those with dyslexia), lost even more ground. These most vulnerable students already needed more effective instruction well before the pandemic hit. 

The pandemic has placed a bright spotlight on the failures and clear inequalities in our educational system and is forcing a reckoning. It is simply not good enough to go back to pre-pandemic days. Years of research have clearly documented that students who aren’t reading at grade level by third grade are at greater risk of continuing to struggle academically, dropping out of school, and ultimately compromising their potential and success as adults. The pandemic exacerbated a problem that has been growing for decades. The evidence reported from the Harvard and Stanford collaboration at the district and state levels ( reveals the problem is bigger than we thought, is resistant to change, and has huge implications for our nation. 

These children lost much more than half of their kindergarten year in school. They lost their way as comfortable and confident learners. There is no question that disrupting the development of their early reading skills was devastating to their academic progress. Their abrupt departure also separated them from teachers and friends who were woven into the social and emotional fabric of their learning environment and their view of school. Students’ routines were disrupted, they were socially isolated, their caregivers experienced major hardships like job loss or food insecurity, and heartbreakingly, some young students experienced the loss of loved ones. As a result, many students are dealing with the effects of trauma and mental health challenges, which are also taking a toll on their academics. 

Four years later, the country is facing an urgent challenge that calls for immediate attention. Both teachers and students need help. The disastrous impact of the pandemic on reading scores has opened the doors to go beyond old and ineffective pedagogical models. Educators who are working side-by-side with these children can see that we’re standing at the edge of a precipice. They, too, feel they have lost their way and need help. 

Old approaches won’t work

These struggling 4th graders and their younger peers in earlier grades are desperate for something beyond “more of the same”. The usual core instruction and intervention tools and practices are not working for today’s fourth graders. Districts have tried and failed. Currently, researchers are urging educators to provide more instructional time and lower teacher-student ratios (eg, models of tutoring, after-school and summer school). However, it is imperative that we bring actionable, innovative and more effective approaches to classrooms that make learning more efficient, relevant and generalizable. It is time to bring the “science of learning” to children as they develop reading foundations.

As stated by NYC elementary principal, M-J Mercanti-Anthony, in a recent article published in the Hechinger Report, “The discovery of the science of reading has led to the larger, more practice-shattering realization that educators know very little about the science of learning itself. ….Now that we are being bombarded by headlines about students’ pandemic learning loss, perhaps we should focus on what we educators never learned.” 

Call to action

It is time to rethink what is necessary for change — for both teachers and students. First, we need a clear understanding of what has been missed. Then we must be willing to rethink organizational structures, instructional models and classroom practices. Next, educators need to better understand the conditions that promote and optimize learning and be provided the professional development and tools to enact change. To do this, we need to embrace a new narrative that targets “learning principles and processes” to make learning more efficient and effective for all students. 

The Anatomy of New, Effective Reading Interventions 

What will help these students? Stay tuned for my next blog where I’ll talk about effective solutions and strategic planning that integrate the science of learning to help get these students on track. 

I’ll identify steps for planning and implementing an effective and efficient reading intervention that targets foundational reading development within a learning framework that maximizes generalization and automaticity, essential components for grade level development in reading.