After falling behind in their reading abilities over the past two years, a group of Alberta students are showing signs of recovery, a researcher has found.
George Georgiou, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, has been monitoring the reading scores of elementary students. He has found that, on average, they are now performing at or above grade level, after slipping below that threshold during the pandemic.
This means these students – especially the youngest learners, whose scores, on average, had fallen as much as a full year below grade level on reading tasks during the pandemic – are now making huge strides in reading.
“When everybody comes together and they all understand the importance of early literacy and what skills have to be taught in the early grades, then you can have the success that we see in our schools today,” Prof. Georgiou said.
He credits the improvements to children having more consistent face-to-face instruction, after lengthy periods of remote learning. Intensive additional reading lessons for those who were struggling have also played a role, he said.
His findings are an encouraging sign as educators and parents across the country worry about the gaps in learning children face after more than two years of pandemic-related upheaval. Learning to read is at the heart of school success, but Canada’s data on how students have fared through the pandemic is piecemeal.
Prof. Georgiou has been monitoring screening assessments from about 20 schools in Edmonton and the surrounding areas for about a decade. The schools assess their students three times a year – in September, January and May – to identify children who are falling behind in their learning and might need more help. The assessments involve sounding out words, reading fluency and comprehension.
By the end of the 2020-21 academic year, Prof. Georgiou found that students in Grades 1 and 2 were performing, on average, eight months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks.
When he studied the assessments this fall for all elementary grades, he found that scores were “back on track,” even among schools in lower-income neighbourhoods.
Prof. Georgiou said the schools he has tracked have focused on explicit reading instruction, where students in the early grades are taught the sounds and letters of the alphabet and carefully decode each letter as they form words.
This is a departure from the way reading is taught in many parts of the country, where children are supposed to be taught to sound out letters, but are also encouraged to predict or guess at words using context, pictures and cues.
“If you have a good process in place, and the good process means early screening and early intervention on the foundational skills of learning to read in English, then the kids can progress well and overcome their early struggles,” he said.
Cathy Giesbrecht, assistant superintendent of learning services at Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools, a school division outside Edmonton, said educators in her schools have focused on decoding words, as well as fluency and reading comprehension. Prof. Georgiou examined results from her elementary schools as part of his research.
During the 2021-22 school year, students who were identified by the screening assessments as falling behind in reading received a 16-week intervention, where they worked in groups of four with educators for half an hour each day, four days a week.
Ms. Giesbrecht said the division saw an “accelerated improvement” in the scores of those students.
“The students who participated in the interventions and the one-to-four ratios made huge gains, and they’re probably where they would have been had it not been for the pandemic,” she said.