Andrea Yon is used to helping students in need. At the Williston-Elko Middle School in rural South Carolina, where she has taught for seven years, more than three out of every four students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Before the pandemic, some of her struggling seventh and eighth graders read at a fifth or sixth grade level.
“They’re now reading at a third and fourth grade level,” Yon said.
Yon used to hold silent reading time in her classroom; students could read whatever they wanted for 20 minutes. “Now,” she said, “they’re looking up after three to five minutes.”
Teachers across the country are seeing more and more students struggle with reading this school year. Pandemic school closures and remote instruction made learning to read much harder, especially for young, low-income students who didn’t have adequate technology at home or an adult who could assist them during the day. Many older students lost the daily habit of reading. Even before the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of U.S. students were unable to read at grade level. Scores had been getting worse for several years.
The pandemic made a bad situation worse.
More than a dozen studies have documented that students, on average, made sluggish progress in reading during the pandemic. Estimates of just how sluggish vary. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company calculated that U.S. students had lost the equivalent of almost half a school year of reading instruction. An analysis of test scores in California and South Carolina found that students had lost almost a third of a year in reading. A national analysis of the test scores of 5.5 million students calculated that in the spring of 2021 students in each grade scored three to six percentile points lower on a widely used test, the Measures of Academic Progress or MAP, than they did in 2019.
Reading achievement has even fallen in the state that ranks the highest in the nation in reading: Massachusetts. Students in grades 3 through 8 slid 6 percentage points in reading on state tests in the spring of 2021 compared to 2019.
Mackenzie Woll, a second-grade teacher at Abby Kelley Foster Charter Public Elementary School in Worcester, Massachusetts, said diagnostic tests at the start of the year revealed that most of her students were reading at a kindergarten or a first grade level. In previous years, some students would come in reading above grade level; this year, no one in her class did.
Woll now reviews kindergarten-level phonics with her second graders. On a recent day, a student held up flashcards at the front of the class and led her peers in a call and response chant through the alphabet. “A, apple, ah!” she said. Her classmates echoed the sounds back to her.
In a normal year, the exercise would have been scaled back by this point, Woll said. “But because of the pandemic, I’m still doing those letter sounds every day.”
Teaching aide Hannah Chancey faces the same problem in second grade classrooms at Rehobeth Elementary School in a small low-income community in southeastern Alabama, a state with reading scores near the bottom nationally.
“They couldn’t read; they couldn’t identify letters,” said Chancey, clutching a clipboard with the names of children who need extra instruction. “We couldn’t have enough help.”
Nationwide, test scores for younger students, who are just learning to read, dropped far more than for older students. The average third grader’s reading score fell 6 percentile points on the MAP test, twice the drop of the average eighth grader. In a separate pandemic study of second and third graders in 100 school districts, Stanford University researchers found that although teachers had figured out how to teach reading remotely during the 2020-21 school year, students didn’t catch up.
“They’re still behind,” said Ben Domingue, an assistant professor at Stanford who was one of the authors. Domingue said reading gaps in younger children could “mutate” into future academic problems. Students need to read in order to learn other subjects, from science to history.
Parents of young children are worried.
Before the pandemic, Albalicia Espino often took her 6-year-old daughter Sara to the West Dallas Library. On special occasions, they’d make the trip to downtown Dallas, where the towering library building has a dedicated children’s floor.
The pandemic halted those treasured visits.
“I didn’t want her to get started on the wrong foot and lose a lot of those basic things,” Espino said. She worries Sara didn’t get enough practice learning letter sounds and other foundational reading skills.
Sara is back at school in person for first grade, trying to learn the elements of language from behind a mask. Her Dallas elementary school extended its school year in an effort to help students make up for lost time. Sara is also getting extra help in reading through a nonprofit organization in her neighborhood.
During the pandemic, students in low-income districts, already lagging, fell even further behind students from wealthier districts. In high-poverty schools, where more than three-quarters of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, the drop in reading scores on the MAP test was often more than three times as large as it was in low-poverty schools, where a quarter or fewer students qualify for the lunch program.
Racial and ethnic gaps worsened too. Reading scores on the MAP test fell almost twice as much for Black and Hispanic students as they did for white and Asian students.
Researchers worry that the drop in reading achievement during the pandemic may be even worse than their figures indicate. All the estimates rely on some sort of test, but many low-income students didn’t take any tests in 2021. For the same reasons that many low-income students struggled to learn remotely during the pandemic, it was also hard, if not impossible, for students to take an online assessment of their progress.
Even before the pandemic, reading achievement was in a slump. In 2016, U.S. fourth graders slid seven points on an international reading test, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Then, fourth and eighth graders — particularly eighth graders — posted lower scores on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a benchmark test that is taken every two years by both age groups.
Analysts noted that reading scores of the lowest achieving students had been declining for a decade, and that the 2019 losses — especially steep among low performers — had erased 30 years of progress. In previous tests, the gains of the highest achieving students had offset the losses at the bottom, leaving the national average steady. But in 2019, the reading performance of all students deteriorated.
“We’ve never seen a significant decline like this before,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which has been monitoring and releasing data on student achievement for decades. “All the tests are showing these patterns. We’re seeing it everywhere.”
The reason for the pandemic’s toll on reading achievement is obvious: It’s hard to learn when schools are closed. But the reason that reading scores fell before the pandemic is less straightforward. Educators and researchers are weighing three theories on what is responsible for the decline: money, instruction or reading itself.
After the 2008 recession, schools across the country cut spending by $600 per student, on average, and laid off thousands of teachers. It took state and local governments seven years to restore their tax bases, muster the political will to approve spending increases and send the money to schools.
“What’s causing these trends is no mystery,” Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank, posted on Twitter. “It’s almost surely the spending cuts that happened in the wake of the Great Recession. The 13-year-olds who did so poorly in 2019 would have been in grades K-2 during the worst of the cuts, from 2011-14. Those early years matter!”
Long before the pandemic, many reading experts argued that young children didn’t receive enough phonics instruction in kindergarten and first grade to become smooth, fluent readers. More than half of Black fourth-graders and 46 percent of Hispanic fourth grade students scored below the lowest level on the NAEP test. For these students, “it is likely that if fluency were improved, comprehension would also improve,” a September 2021 analysis by three prominent reading scholars concluded.
Some educators have tried to respond by emphasizing phonics. The Wenatchee School District in Washington switched all students to phonics-based reading instruction a few months before the pandemic. The district has long struggled with low reading scores, especially among its English learners, who make up nearly a quarter of the enrollment.
Superintendent Paul Gordon recalled a moment during a visit to a fourth grade classroom that underscored why the district needed to move quickly.
“I asked the kids what they found challenging and fun,” he said. “We had a lot of stories about lunch and recess. But I will never forget at the very end, a little girl raises her hand and says, ‘I can’t read. When I go out to recess, I feel like everyone is laughing at me because I don’t know how to read.’”
Allison Hurt, a first grade teacher who has taught at Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee for 20 years, said the switch required a complete overhaul of the way she taught — and thought — about reading.
“I didn’t realize that there is actually a sequential order in phonology that students should be learning their sounds — biggest to smallest,” Hurt said. “They have to be able to break a sentence apart into words, and chunk them apart into syllables.”
By the end of the first full year of teaching this way, Hurt said 80 percent of her class had aced a phonology test — a rate she hadn’t seen before.
Not every student has improved as dramatically, but Hurt said this structured method has made it easier to catch students who are stuck.
Many scholars are concerned that phonics alone won’t help children read proficiently as they get older. Elena Forzani, a reading specialist at Boston University, thinks the recent slide in eighth grade test scores could reflect ineffective teaching practices.
“We tend to take those kids and throw lower-level instruction at them,” Forzani said. “They get these rote phonics programs. It’s all focused on learning to read. They’re not having complex discussions about a text. At the same time, we’re also taking away science and history instruction where kids can develop knowledge and where they can put comprehension strategies into practice. We’re teaching kids to read in a content and motivational vacuum.”
Researchers are also zeroing in on changes in home reading habits. In student surveys that accompanied the NAEP reading assessments, the percentage of eighth graders who said they read 30 minutes or more a day, excluding homework, declined by 4 percentage points from 2017 to 2019. They were less likely to say they talked about books, went to the library or considered reading one of their favorite activities.
It’s too soon to blame the distraction of texting, TikTok and Minecraft. More time reading doesn’t necessarily produce strong readers. Researchers sometimes find instances, such as in Mississippi, where students read less but their scores actually increased slightly. In other states, such as Rhode Island, reading habits were more stable but scores slid.
The root of America’s reading problem could take years to unravel. In the meantime, teachers have to help the students sitting in front of them right now.
Back in South Carolina, Yon is trying to get her seventh and eighth graders to re-engage with literature by giving them physical books. She finds they read better if they are looking at an actual page instead of a screen.
On Saturdays, her students can get one-on-one tutoring. Yon was surprised by the high turnout at recent sessions. It’s a sign, she said, that things will eventually improve.
Reporters Dahlia Bazzaz with The Seattle Times, Hillary Flynn with The Post and Courier, Chelsea Sheasley with The Christian Science Monitor, Talia Richman with Dallas Morning News and Rebecca Griesbach with AL.com contributed to this report.
This story about reading proficiency was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Christian Science Monitor and the Ed Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Post and Courier, and The Seattle Times. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.