By Dr. Carolyn Brown, Chief Academic Officer

In part 1 of this series, I talked about the urgent reading challenge faced by fourth graders who experienced school closures during their early learning. In this blog, I’ll share what I’ve been hearing from teachers trying to sort through these issues in their classrooms. When asked to describe their most difficult roadblocks to improving reading, I consistently heard common observations, which I’ve grouped into four themes.

  1. Behavioral issues:
    More students than ever before are exhibiting behavioral challenges. They act out in class, are less focused and engaged in instruction, have poor self-esteem, and can’t seem to get into the rhythm of daily classroom routines and activities. Even the excitement usually found in social interactions with peers in small group activities is missing.
  2. Wide range of gaps in reading skills:
    Students are bringing a wide range of gaps in reading skills, from basic decoding skills to comprehension, and it is difficult to know what they need and how to provide the instructional support necessary to get these students on grade level. The students are frustrated, know that they are struggling and don’t want to take any risks in front of peers.
  3. Core instruction and intervention practices are failing to reach these students:
    These students aren’t ready for grade-level core instruction, and the intervention tools and practices are not working. Even with sustained, coordinated efforts students are not making adequate progress.Most of the professional development about the Science of Reading is implemented at the earlier grades. However, this isn’t just an elementary school challenge. Upper-grade teachers must understand and implement it too, especially for those children who lack basic skill development.
  4. Unproductive time on technology
    Technology programs that served as a primary source of reading instruction during the pandemic have continued as a way of life in the classroom but don’t seem to be improving student performance. Although it can facilitate classroom management, technology often seems to just “babysit,” especially for students with very low skills. Many technology programs are not improving academic performance of these struggling students. Additionally, social disconnection with peers and teachers only gets worse.

Do you see any of these trends showing up in your classrooms?

Building a sense of belonging is an essential first step to creating a learning culture that invites everyone to participate—students and teachers alike.

Learning to read is hard. Making students feel supported, comfortable, and like they belong helps. Start with small actionable steps each day that acknowledge successes in reading, increase the social engagement of students and teachers, and provide opportunities to express kindness and caring about each other. A few suggestions include:

  1. Establish clear expectations for building a positive classroom culture. Set weekly goals as a group for respect, responsibility, and kindness towards one another and celebrate them daily as they are exhibited.
  2. Encourage students to express their feelings of success and frustration as they engage in reading lessons or activities.
  3. Work with your colleagues to make sure each student has at least one stable relationship with a caring adult. Check in individually with those students every day. Be aware and sensitive to the needs of students who have experienced elevated levels of trauma and continued anxiety.

Create a reading instruction plan that celebrates successes every day.

  1. First, be sure you have the appropriate tools to evaluate each student’s basic foundational reading skills (e.g., decoding and automatic word recognition) that should already be in place by fourth grade, but maybe be lacking because their learning was disrupted by the pandemic.Unfortunately, most tools don’t go into this level of detail beyond early elementary grades. To help schools fill this gap, WordFlight offers a free diagnostic screener to identify if students’ foundational reading skills are proficient, at some risk, or at high risk. Sign up here.
  2. Provide honest feedback to your students, explain what they are missing and how a plan will be put into place to improve their reading skills. Emphasize that the students missed important steps during the time when school was disrupted and they need to spend some time catching up. Emphasize that this is not their fault. Also, use the data to bring parents and caregivers into a partnership to support students. Recent research found that families vastly overestimate how well their students are doing in school, especially after the pandemic closures, despite receiving regular reports.
  3. Provide practice opportunities that allow students to “learn by doing” in a variety of reading activities. Present the right instructional tasks to provide students with many successful practice opportunities. By increasing their confidence that they can successfully participate, engagement will increase and they will take more risks in the learning process.

How do you know if technology is helping?

When implementing new technology, consider carefully whether the technology is purposefully developed and shown to move students forward to develop specific competencies. Technology can be a powerful aid if it supports the classroom instruction, goals, and structure. In addition, it should be based on learning theory that provides useable data for you so you can be more effectively engaged in facilitating learning in the classroom.

For example, new approaches from learning science are designed to help struggling readers retain, generalize, and automatically retrieve information.

  • It turns out that students need to experience content in a variety of contexts to remember and use their knowledge in new situations. They learn to derive patterns in word recognition, syntax, morphology, and semantics— all critical to language development and reading.
  • Learner-centric technology can efficiently target gaps in basic word level reading skills by systematically structuring practice across varied words, tasks, and contexts. This structured practice enables students to develop automatic word recognition. The required exposures and practice would be virtually impossible for a teacher to deliver to each student.

This is an example of using principles from learning science, embedded in technology, to help students develop foundational skills, such as decoding and automatic word recognition, so they can advance to fluency and reading comprehension.

Now is a perfect time to integrate principles and practices from learning science into reading instruction to optimize learning. We can use learning science and technology together to combat the challenges of caused by COVID-19 disruptions for fourth graders who are struggling to read.

Changing the way we think about classroom culture and technology are just some shifts we need to make to help struggling readers. In part 3 of this series, I’ll talk about other shifts that need to happen at the school, district, and system levels.