Kids’ Reading Scores Are Lower. Reading Science Should Guide the Response.


Audrey Breen

New data shows literacy scores fell during the pandemic. Education professor Emily Solari explains what it will take to recover from these disrupted learning opportunities.

As we pass the second anniversary of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, education researchers continue to get clarity on exactly how COVID has impacted students. A new analysis of fall 2021 Virginia literacy data conducted by the team at the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) office, led by education professor Emily Solari, is lifting the veil on the effect the pandemic had on reading acquisition for the commonwealth’s youngest learners.

“From the onset of the pandemic educators have been concerned about its impact on both the social-emotional and academic development of children and adolescents,” said Solari, the Edmund H. Henderson Professor of Education at the UVA School of Education and Human Development. “State-level data on early reading in Virginia can shed a light on the impact of the pandemic on early literacy skills. In general, we found that the disrupted learning opportunities as a result of the pandemic negatively impacted early literacy development.”

Five Key Takeaways

According to Solari, Virginia is fortunate to have 20 years of early literacy data for students in kindergarten through second grade, through the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS). These data allow for the commonwealth to better understand literacy trends in the earliest grades. At the local level, it allows teachers, reading specialists and building leaders to have an idea of which students need more intensive reading instruction.

The report, analyzing the k-2 PALS data from the fall of 2019, 2020 and 2021, identifies five key takeaways.

1. A historically high number of children are beginning the school year identified as high risk for reading difficulties.

“Having the historical PALS data has also allowed us to understand the impact of the pandemic on literacy trends across the commonwealth,” Solari said. “What we saw in the fall of 2021 was a historically high rate of children entering kindergarten, first, and second grade scoring below benchmark on early literacy skills, indicating that they were at-risk for reading and writing difficulties.”

According to Solari, this high number can pose challenges ahead.

“School systems that are set up to prevent long-term reading and writing difficulties can use these data to make informed decisions about the allocation of school resources to provide additional instruction to those students who need it,” Solari said. “When so many students are identified as high risk for literacy difficulties, it presents new and unique challenges to schools.”

2. Over the three years, as the percentage of students identified as high risk grew, those identified as low risk shrank.

According to the report, in 2019 the percentage of students identified as low risk for persistent reading difficulties was double that of the high-risk group. The fall 2021 data show that the groups are now nearly identical in size.

3. Below-benchmark scores were disproportionately higher for students who are Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, English learners and those with disabilities.

The data show that these students were overrepresented as high risk when compared to both overall rates and their relative proportion of the total student population.

4. While rates of kindergarteners scoring below benchmark plateaued, the percentages of first- and second-grade students scoring below benchmark continued to increase.

“The continued increase is especially concerning as the fall 2021 rates of below-benchmark scores for first and second graders were the highest PALS has ever documented,” Solari said.

5. From kindergarten to second grade, Black students and students with disabilities experienced disproportionately widening gaps between low and high risk.

We Know What to Do Now

While she describes what the data as “alarming,” Solari is hopeful.

“Decades of research can help inform how schools and teachers can respond,” Solari said.

For developing early foundational skills, systematic and explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle, connecting sounds to letters, is essential to develop a child’s ability to decode, or read words on a page. “We want to give children a lot of guided practice alongside multiple opportunities to engage in practice with appropriate scaffolds,” she said.

Dosage and the intensity of instruction is important. In this period where many students have experienced disrupted learning opportunities, teachers need to make sure students are getting the proper amount of instruction to accelerate their reading development. For many students, this will mean additional supplemental reading instruction time above and beyond typical classroom instruction.

Current teachers will likely need additional supports as this increased need is growing.

“Our teachers need to understand reading science and how to apply this in classroom settings,” Solari said. “The connection between building knowledge and practice is crucial, and perhaps, the hardest step to ensuring that all children are receiving evidence-based early reading instruction.”

Another way to support teachers is to prepare them for this changing landscape during their teacher training before they even enter the classroom.

The UVA Reading Education program has designed coursework for students in the reading master’s and reading specialist endorsement programs, as well as for students receiving their reading specialist credentials, that aligns with reading science and evidence-based reading instruction.

“Our goal is to develop teachers and reading specialists who understand both the science behind reading development and how to use this knowledge to implement evidence-based practices in the context of their own classrooms and schools,” Solari said.

Individual students have unique profiles of early literacy strengths and weaknesses. According to Solari, school personnel, including classroom teachers, reading specialists and special education teachers, must know how to recognize these varied profiles and provide targeted instruction to students.

“If you think about the context of entire classrooms, the prospect of this can be daunting, especially currently, with many children being identified as at-risk,” she said.

Preparing pre-service teachers in the science of reading and evidence-based reading instruction can help them better meet student needs in the wake of the pandemic. For teachers already in the classroom, evidence-based professional development is critical for supporting current teachers to support these students.

The PALS and UVA Reading Education teams have created a series of professional development resources for current teachers that are based in reading science and are publicly available. The team is actively developing materials and is adding to the site weekly.

Science-based teacher preparation and professional development are two of several elements included in a new statewide initiative to improve literacy in Virginia. Efforts to ground literacy instruction across Virginia in reading science received a boost with the passing of the Virginia Literacy Act in April, a policy informed by Solari’s scholarship and supported by the State and Local Government Policy Clinic at the UVA School of Law.

“The Virginia Literacy Act connects reading science with four key levers: teacher preparation, professional development of current teachers, evidence-based curriculum materials, and engagement with families,” Solari said. “Weaving reading science through all four of these areas will hopefully enhance early literacy outcomes in both the short and long run.”

According to Solari, efforts like these illustrate how leveraging what we know about literacy can point the way forward out of the pandemic and well into the future.