By Dr. Evelyn Johnson and Cristianne Lane
This article originally appeared in Idaho Ed News Voice. You can view the original article here.
Teachers and principals across Idaho are doing their very best right now to provide online instruction and to be a support to our communities. The response of school districts across the state to help meet the needs of students has been a source of hope and inspiration during these turbulent times.
Even with these efforts however, with schools temporarily closed, students with the most intensive learning needs will experience significant learning loss, especially in the area of early reading. This will unfortunately exacerbate the existing achievement gap for many underserved student populations.
We all know that reading is critical to later school success, and we also know that when children fail to learn to read well, they are at much greater risk for poor school and life outcomes. The purpose of reading is comprehension – so the focus of early reading instruction has to be on teaching children to construct meaning from print. This means being able to identify and accurately read individual words, developing a strong vocabulary and extensive background knowledge, and engaging in complex thinking such as making inferences.
Here’s a quick example – read these two sentences. Sally was having a ball. Her sister was away at camp, so Sally had a room to herself.
To understand those two sentences, a child first has to be able to read each of the individual words. Then, they need to know that the word ‘ball’ can have different meanings. In this case, it means to have a great time, a meaning with which a child with limited language experience may be unfamiliar. Then they have to infer that the ‘camp’ is an overnight camp, and that Sally does not enjoy sharing a room with her sister. Even with very short text, reading is complex.
We know, without a doubt, that early reading instruction is most effective when systematic, explicit phonics instruction is coupled with a strong emphasis on supporting language development, vocabulary and background knowledge. Decades of research support this. In schools where research has informed practice, and early reading is taught this way, all students benefit.
Spring is typically the time when beginning readers start to really take off in terms of skill development, provided they have received explicit instruction in foundational skills versus outdated methods in which children spend far too much time learning on their own—which, unfortunately, still exists in too many schools. Children need to practice blending sounds together and teachers will need to model this for students remotely. Beginning readers also need practice segmenting sounds and linking these sounds to the letters or phonics patterns that represent each sound. Simply assigning and assessing spelling lists is not the most effective method for teaching children this critical skill. To become fluent readers, students also need a lot of practice reading decodable text with the phonics patterns they have learned.
We must leverage what we know about the science of reading to help Idaho’s children, especially those who are most at-risk. Educators who are interested in pursuing online classes or remote instructional coaching can contact Lee Pesky Learning Center, or take a look at our online courses and resources here.
Right now, it is unclear how long schools will remain closed. What is clear, is that when schools reopen, we are going to need to do all we can to support the teachers and principals who are charged with teaching Idaho’s most vulnerable students learn to read. In the meantime, here are some high-quality, free resources we hope you will find helpful.
IES Practice Guide on Foundational Skills
IES Practice Guide on Comprehension Instruction