Early literacy: What we can do during COVID-19

In December, NWEA shared research about the effects of pandemic-era schooling on reading and math growth. The news looked better for reading than for math. But as someone obsessed with early learning, I had to note that the study was about kids in grades 3 and above.

So, what about our kindergarten to second grade kids, the ones who should be learning to read? Should we be worried about them?

Two kinds of worry

Yes and no. We should worry, and we should stop worrying. As many a therapist will tell you, worry comes in two basic types: productive worry and unproductive worry. There is the kind of worry we can translate into an action: Here’s what I can do. And then there’s the kind of worry that is about things outside of our control. We’ve had a lot of practice with the latter this year. But unproductive worry is exhausting, and it doesn’t help our students.

So how do we worry productively about the kids who should be learning to read? And how do we, teachers and families both, put our productive steps together in a way that adds up to more?

What we can do to help with word reading

You know what’s hard, when you’re six? Learning to read via Zoom meetings. Learning to read at school while keeping your mask over your mouth and your nose while simultaneously remembering not to hug anyone.

But do you know what’s even harder? Learning to read without solid instruction in the patterns that help you sound out words. That’s phonics. Solid instruction in phonics means having a planned sequence, one that maps out when to introduce which spellings of which vowel sounds, for example. A systematic phonics sequence puts CAT and HAT before WEIGHT and FREIGHT. Phonics supports kids as they read others’ words, and it also supports them as they write their own. For a six-year-old learning to read, phonics is not just something abstract to work on, but also something tangible to play with. What more can I do with my magnetic letters? How many three-letter words can I make in a row, changing just one letter at a time?

[U]nproductive worry is exhausting, and it doesn’t help our students.

Teaching systematic, explicit phonics is a major here’s-what-I-can-do for many teachers. If teaching phonics isn’t top of mind for an early elementary teacher, changing that should become a top priority. Trying to get good literacy outcomes without good phonics instruction is like trying to pin the tail on the donkey while blindfolded and dizzy. Sure, we’ve seen someone succeed before, but overall it’s just a setup for failure.

What about parents and guardians, though, who have no training in phonics instruction? They, too, need a what-I-can-do. To help with that, teachers can point families to little books and chunks of text that offer practice with the right level of phonics, especially those with the sounding-out rules that were taught on a specific week. Teachers can help connect families to “decodable text” like the Bob Books or others that reinforce those sounding-out patterns. If long vowel teams like OA and AI are the focus in phonics work, little books about BOATS and RAIN and OARS and TAILS give kids direct practice. For more decodable text sources, check out this list on the always-useful and research-based Reading Rockets site.

Phonics supports kids as they read others’ words, and it also supports them as they write their own.

Notice that the Reading Rockets list does not include the whole world of books targeted to early readers. Some other early reader book series are not designed with phonics practice in mind, so they are not included on the decodable text list. In other kinds of early readers, hard words that are less friendly to core phonics rules are included, along with features that help kids guess or remember the words: strong picture clues, repetition of hard words, highly predictable sentences. Those approaches are less supportive of phonics skills; at worst, they can discourage the sounding-out strategies kids need as they progress as readers. To support good long-term word-reading strategies, we want lots of words that set kids up for success with their phonics rules. Those words are found in the highest ratio in decodable books, like those on the Reading Rockets list.

Teachers: Teach a clear phonics sequence. Families: Practice those phonics skills at home with decodable texts.

What we can do to support meaning-making

You know what’s boring, when you’re six? Having every book you encounter be about rats and mats, or about cans and pans. A diet of only phonics is like a diet of only steamed vegetables: we aren’t going to have anyone coming back for seconds, let alone becoming foodies, if we don’t have some more appealing food on the menu.

In its simplest model, early reading instruction is about two things. One is those sounding-out skills, where phonics and decodable text loom large. But the other is an understanding of language, including building kids’ vocabularies and their knowledge. This is a fun can-do for both teachers and families. We can spend time together with engaging, interesting, challenging books. These aren’t the books that the just-beginning readers can handle on their own; these are books filled with unfamiliar words, with sentences that loop and pause and double back like gymnasts, finally sticking the landing perfectly at the end. High-quality, challenging texts bear reading more than once. They beg for conversation.

You know what’s really happy-making, when you’re six? Reading a book with someone like Dad, who does all the voices. Being listened to, interacted with, taken seriously when you share why you think that just happened in the book. It feels good to learn a new phrase or word that you didn’t know before and to try it out on your brother the next night at dinner. It feels good to understand something new about the world. Conversations about written text do wonders for the language comprehension and the knowledge building that lead to long-term reading comprehension.

[S]pend time together with engaging, interesting, challenging books. […] They beg for conversation.

These days especially, there are times when things feel far from good. Comprehending what’s going on, both around us and inside of us, is a challenge whether we are six or sixty. When teachers or families open a book that reflects something about a child’s own worries or fears or confusions, that can open up the kinds of conversations that protect a child’s mental health. Caring relationships and good literacy learning go hand in hand, especially for our youngest ones.

What we can do to increase equity and excellence

But really. Should we be worried? There are voices on social media who call for us to stop focusing on learning loss. “Our kids are not broken,” they say. “Let’s stop the ‘catch them up’ frenzy.”

While frenzy is never a good policy, neither is underselling the work we have to do. Some kids are not as connected to schooling during this pandemic, and that puts them at a disadvantage. Some kids will struggle to learn to read this year, and they will be disproportionately of color and disproportionately from poorer families. The pandemic has revealed the ways we stack the deck against certain kids, and acknowledging that is step one. But what are the productive next steps?

In early literacy, we can insist on better training, better curricula, and better research-based instructional models that support two key areas. First, we can expand the number of schools where we deliver excellent phonics instruction, for all kids. No more of that pin the tail on the donkey blindfold and dizziness. Second, we can work to see real engagement with rich texts that develop language and knowledge, for all kids. We can lay out a literary feast that makes their taste buds rejoice and their appetites swell.

So let’s stop wondering how much we should worry. Instead, let’s lean in and do what we can do.

Hear more from Cindy Jiban at our webinar on April 29, Is there an early literacy crisis? How science and data can help. Register to attend live, or to be emailed a link to the recording.

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