We need schools, communities and individuals working together on equitable opportunities to put students on the path to reading proficiency.

Foundational literacy is key to reversing post-COVID reading declines

We need schools, communities and individuals working together on equitable opportunities to put students on the path to reading proficiency

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 but not be limited to: recognizing letters and sounds of the alphabet, applying phonics knowledge to decode words, re-reading passages to increase fluent reading, and 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, 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. This 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 (NSLP) (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 policymakers 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 systems 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, school systems 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.

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