In part 2 of this series, I talked about the common challenges educators are facing in the classroom, and the culture and technology shifts individuals can make to support struggling fourth grade readers. But no educator operates in a vacuum. What are some systemic shifts that we can make to support students’ whose early grades were disrupted by the pandemic?

  1. To be effective with these older struggling readers, we must shift our thinking and approaches about reading interventions to scale new interventions to reach more fourth graders as soon as possible.

It is critical that basic foundational skills are assessed and if components are missing for today’s fourth graders, they must be developed as effectively and efficiently as possible. Although these skills require specific instruction and practice, this work cannot be at the expense of developing grade-level vocabulary, thinking, and knowledge building—all essential to reading proficiency. We must integrate instructional practices to build knowledge around grade-level content through listening, discussion, and interacting with peers and teachers for all students—even those who are still working on their foundational reading skills.

Cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg recently urged that:

  1. we need to focus interventions on the alphabetic principle and phonics, enabling “real reading” as quickly as possible rather than spending hours on phonemic awareness proficiency in a number of tasks;
  2. we need to provide many meaningful, engaging experiences that develop oral language, which predicts reading comprehension;
  3. explicit instruction requiring progression through a specified scope and sequence is not appropriate for all students, and
  4. implicit learning is critical to language development, learning, and reading and should be supported in classroom instruction.
  1. Rethink technology’s role in instruction.

Optimize teacher time and impact by creating more opportunities for engagement and interaction. This is where technology can be used to provide targeted practice opportunities to fill in gaps in basic reading skill development.

Equip educators with knowledge and tools based on the principles of learning science, rather than accepting only traditional methods of reading instruction. (I talk more about this in part 2). Intervention tools based on learning science focus on instruction and practice that make skills and concepts “stick” by improving retention, retrieval, and generalizability. These research-based tools will assist teachers provide interventions that target the reading skills that many fourth graders lack.

  1. Focus on fourth grade teachers.

Have they had training in teaching foundational reading skills and the Science of Reading? The National Center on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found that pre-service teacher programs exclude phonological awareness and phonics. Provide teachers and reading interventionists with professional learning that gives a deeper understanding of the principles of learning that “make learning stick.”

Quality training will include webinars or courses for learning principles that go across domains. Teachers need to understand instructional examples of the role of contrasts, why variation of tasks and contexts is important, what it means to interleave content and why it is effective, what and when is feedback effective, what “desirable” difficulties look like, and why elaboration helps the retention and retrieval processes.

  1. Build and support the environments and instruction to enhance text comprehension.

Text comprehension enhances knowledge in multiple domains, increases curiosity, builds empathy for others, and supports the development of a self-image as a reader and a learner.

  • Meaningful in-person, small-group instruction that incorporates principles of learning helps students apply and generalize their knowledge and skills in real-world reading contexts and very importantly, allows them to interact and connect with peers.
  • However, a blended approach that incorporates purposeful technology to personalize and accelerate skill learning makes small group instruction more successful. It also provides time for teachers to meaningfully engage in small-group instruction. This time allows students to integrate and practice their newly developed skills, along with their peers.

Structure and a systematic approach to literacy and learning sets expectations for students and increases efficiency. Teachers have no classroom time to waste, and students not only crave structure but flourish when they know what is expected and they deliver. Students need interventions that allow them to be successful and make efficient use of instructional time and engage with peers. Encourage and support educators to:

  • Monitor student performance and make adjustments as needed.
  • Have students take responsibility for their journey to becoming a proficient reader.
  • And, as always, celebrate students’ progress and successes every day!

We all feel the weight of the challenge ahead for educators and students. Let us help you take the first step to helping students. You can identify students who have deficits in critical reading skills with our free screener: