Last spring, a few months into the pandemic when few of us really understood just how long this would drag on, my son had a Zoom call with his pre-K classmates and several of the kindergarten teachers at his New York City public school. The teachers introduced themselves, chatted a bit about what they thought the next year might bring and welcomed questions. One boy asked if he’d be able to bring his favorite stuffed animal to school with him next year; another checked repeatedly to make sure there would be recess. Then one student asked if she and her friends would learn to read in kindergarten, which the teachers answered with an enthusiastic “yes!”
I thought about that moment recently now that we are now more than halfway through this strange school year, and it has become clear that many kids in his kindergarten class do not, in fact, know how to read. My son is just starting to get it, but slowly. I do not think he will end the year where he is “supposed” to be, and he is not alone.
Experts have warned repeatedly about learning loss over the pandemic, which will unevenly distributed in so many ways. Classroom gaps between the “haves” and “have-nots” are widening, English learners are losing ground and schools have struggled to adequately support children with disabilities.
And increasingly, researchers are interested in the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on early readers, who are learning foundational skills like phonemic awareness. According to one estimates, the number of first and second graders “significantly at-risk” for needing serious reading interventions has jumped. At the start of this academic year, some researchers believed students had already lost one-and-half months’ worth of learning in reading.
Again, these are all estimates. No one knows what kind of setbacks early readers may have experienced yet, in large part because they will not be evenly distributed and children’s academic experiences over the past year have differed wildly. But it can feel stressful for parents of emerging readers, who have much to balance in their daily lives but want to ensure their children are not the ones falling behind.
So HuffPost Parents spoke with a few experts who offered some perspective on the impact this COVID-19 year will have on emerging readers — and offered some thoughts on things that are even more important than whether your kindergartner or first grader comes out of this year knowing how to read.
Benchmarks are — and always have been — limited.
Even before the pandemic, a significant percentage of students in the United States were reading below grade level, which has long been a major concern. But educators emphasize that it’s important to strike a balance between boosting literacy on a national scale and recognizing that individual kids learn at their own pace.
“The most important thing to keep in mind is that benchmarks don’t define students,” said Megan Allen, 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year and founder of The Community Classroom. “And that children’s learning develops at different times, at different rates, and on their own schedules.”
Benchmarks are useful for teachers, as they help them determine where a child is on their learning-to-read journey and so teachers can “meet them where they are at,” Allen said. Benchmarks can become problematic, however, when children come to judge themselves by their reading level and internalize that they’re somehow behind.
“There is nothing magical about learning a certain skill or topic at a particular time,” echoed Siri Fiske, founder of Mysa School, which runs micro-schools.
“Everyone seems to be worrying about their kids being ‘behind,’” she said. “I am not sure what they mean. Behind what? Behind who? The benchmarks are somewhat arbitrary, and different schools and districts have different benchmarks.”
Right now, it’s more important to keep up children’s love of learning …
As children around the country reconciled themselves to another year of Zoom school or in-person classes that lack some of the fun and connection of a more typical year due to the need for social distance, experts have cautioned about something possibly more damaging than learning loss: losing their love of learning. Children learn better when they’re interested and engaged.
That’s especially true for younger learners, who may really struggle to sit still for remote school and who are missing out on the play that is such a crucial element of early childhood education.
“If we can just keep our kids’ excitement alive, that is success,” said Emily Greene, author of “School, Disrupted: Rediscovering the Joy of Learning in a Pandemic-Stricken World.”
She noted that parents tend to naturally do this when our children are really young, but once they hit kindergarten and start coming home with more specific assignments and worksheets, those tend to take over — rather than maintaining a “rhythm of building on their curiosities.”
It doesn’t take a lot. One simple strategy for tapping into kids’ natural sense of curiosity, while also fostering learning, is to check out the many virtual field trips that are available to children and families right now, Greene said.
Also, give them plenty of unstructured time. “Let your kid be bored, let them have free time,” Greene urged, noting that this fires up the brain in a way that lets it tap into their natural sense of curiosity and imagination.
“Parents should be concerned if they see their kids’ curiosity, in general, dwindling,” said Fiske.
… and specifically, their love of reading.
Again, rather than emphasizing particular reading skills at this moment in time, parents and caregivers should focus their energies on making sure their kiddos love to read, both experts said.
Don’t apply pressure, which can “suck the joy out of reading,” Allen said.
Also, give emerging readers a choice in what they read, she added.
And remember, reading doesn’t just happen when kids are sitting down with an assigned leveled book; it can happen when they are looking at a menu, a street sign or checking out a magazine.
“Find something, anything, to keep them actively reading,” Fiske urged.
Don’t forget to keep reading aloud to your emerging reader, which not only helps them learn (research suggests that kindergartners who are regularly read to have greater phonemic awareness), it also fosters emotional connection. Also, read in front of them, which models good habits. (Allen said this list from the non-profit NWEA has some helpful strategies for parents.)
Remember: Teachers are there to help.
There are some “red flags” parents can be on the lookout for to help determine if their emerging reader is really struggling.
“It’s important to talk to your child’s teacher, pediatrician and other professionals before identifying any of these as a red flag,” Allen said. “Reading is a complex task, and red flags don’t mean there is a problem — they mean keep your eyes and ears open and have a conversation with your child’s teacher.”
Know that gaps in learning and missed instruction that children have experienced are going to cause “difficulty reading” for many children, Allen said. Don’t panic, and talk to an educator (“or three!”) before jumping to any conclusions, she urged.
Unfortunately, for some early readers this past year will be difficult to overcome — and there is a tricky balance between taking the pressure off parents and students to reach certain benchmarks, and making sure certain kids do not get left behind. Estimates suggest that helping students catch up on lost learning is going to take a multibillion-dollar investment in high-intensity tutoring and supplemental “acceleration academies.”
That’s difficult to hear as a parent or caregiver, but experts say the best any of us can do right now is to ask for help, continue to foster our children’s natural sense of curiosity and try and focus on any silver linings we see.
“Our kids have still learned a ton this year, even outside of the traditional learning setting,” Allen said. “They’ve learned how to make omelets, to enjoy the beauty of a snowy morning, to play guitar, to make conversation at the dinner table, to build pillow forts, and how to enjoy their family. They’ve learned how to be flexible, how to persevere, how to be tough, and how it’s okay to break down and show emotions. I would encourage everyone to do an inventory of all the things their kids have actually learned and celebrate those things.”