Last week, I was contacted by two journalists students from UBC (University of British Columbia) to contribute to an article they were writing for the UBC Thunderbird Newspaper about how the pandemic has impacted reading skills, interests, and instruction as well as my thoughts about online reading platforms. What started out as answers to a set of questions, quickly turned into a bit of a manifesto! While they took only a snippet of it for their article (you can read the entire article here), I have decided to post my thoughts in their entirety here as I thought it might provide some insight and possibly lead to some important discussions in your school. Huge thank-you to my literacy soul sisters, Lisa Wilson (VP at Mar Jok Elementary, SD 23) and Dr. Donna Kozak (adjunct @UBC and UBCO) for their wisdom and insight!
I have included some of the journalist’s questions so you can see how they led to my rather lengthy response (of which they extracted three sentences for their article!)
How effectively do you think technology-driven learning tools (audiovisual responsive books), can help students cope with the hybrid online-offline school conditions?
I think it was effective and particularly helpful for continued learning at home. In terms of online reading platforms, I think as long as kids are reading, whether they are reading on a device or from an old fashioned hard-covered book, whether they are reading independently or being read to, we should celebrate that. Reading platforms gained traction during the pandemic as they provided a place for students to practice reading when schools were shut down or working in a hybrid setting. There are many online reading platforms where students are encouraged to “read more books more often” and motivate users with gamification and incentives like points and badges. While I’m not a huge believer in rewarding reading, I have come to accept that if it motivates kids to read more – that’s all that matters. What I do like about some online reading platforms, Simbi:Read for Good, for example, is that they offer students bimodal or trimodal methods of reading. Readers can choose to either read along (listen to a voice read while you follow along with the story), narrate (read aloud and record your own voice, allowing for playback) or read silently. Many of these platforms have features which allow for words to be highlighted as students read along, helping those who may have difficulty tracking words as they read and provide a less intimidating setting to practice reading aloud. The AI on these platforms allows provides great features for teachers to track their students’ reading progress and provides feedback to help them be more responsive to individual students’ needs. A win-win, as far as I’m concerned. A unique feature of the Simbi platform, and what sets it apart in my opinion, is that it offers a unique “read for good” option where readers can choose to contribute their voice to the global library to help other readers around the world. A win-win-win.
How do you think the pandemic has affected students’ reading attitudes both inside and outside the classroom?
As a teacher, how do you think teaching methods should change to make up for the year lost in in-person learning and incentivize young students to engage in pleasurable reading?
In your opinion what should other players, like the provincial government and school boards do to inspire reading habits in young students?
As I am not currently working in a school directly with children, I can’t really speak to the children’s attitudes towards reading but I can speak to teachers’ concerns. First and foremost, teachers are trying their best. They have worked tirelessly over the past two years adapting to endless changes in restrictions, policies, online learning, hybrid models, mask mandates, school organizations, school closures, vaccine status, cohorts, staggered lunches, coughing kids…. the list is endless. Secondly, and understandably, teachers are tired. They are tired of teaching in a pandemic and trying to cover a curriculum in the midst of all these restrictions and changes. But most of all, teachers are concerned. With so many students missing so much school and the huge gaps in instruction, they are concerned that their students are behind where they should be which adds an enormous pressure on them.
But if we take a few steps back, we can possibly look at this from a different lense. While there is a huge concern that students are “behind” – I ask myself “behind what?” The reality is, our students are behind a standard benchmark that was developed before the pandemic. So, measuring children’s achievements in reading or any other subject now against their achievements 3 years ago is not realistic. It is not the children’s fault they have fallen behind, nor is it their teachers’. (Blame that bat!) What’s important to remember is that they have fallen behind on mass. So rather than continuing to try to assess a grade 2 student, for example, against a grade two benchmark that was set prior to the pandemic and feeling stressed because “they aren’t where they should be”, perhaps the answer is why not just figure out where they ARE and go from there?
The positive thing that may come out of all of this, from my perspective, is that it might encourage more teachers and districts to move away from starting with grade level standards and trying to fit students into them, but starting with the child and creating a standard more suited for them. To be clear, benchmarks are important. We need a ‘universal assessment’ to help us all understand where each child is and what they are developmentally capable of doing. Without that, we might swing too far the other way and our systems of assessment, differentiate, and teach would be lost. The universal benchmarks help us all speak the same language and support children in a class and at a school level. They are a target to help us – however we have to be thoughtful – as we always have had to – about how we use the targets.
Whether pre or post pandemic, every student develops reading skills at different times and in different ways – they always have and always will. No teacher will ever have a class of children who are all reading at the same level. It doesn’t exist. There are countless factors that impact the reading development of a child – from what month their birthday falls, to whether their parents read to them before they started kindergarten, to whether they attended pre-school. And now we need to add “learned to read during the pandemic” to that list. I think teachers are finding it more challenging now because they are facing far more children they need to differentiate for.
Every child is on their own personal reading journey and an educator’s job is to determine first, where each student is on that journey and second, how they can help them move along that journey. Not towards an arbitrary grade level but towards the goal of reading proficiency. So, instead of asking, “How will they ever catch up?” or “How will they ever be ready for grade ___?”, perhaps we should be asking, “Where is this student on their reading journey and how can I help them move forward?” All of the great methods of explicit instruction in reading will still work and assessment is more important than ever. A ‘’typical’ grade 2 class may not be so typical anymore, so assessing students early better ensures that we can meet each child’s needs.
Blaming children for being behind in their reading does little to help them feel better about themselves as readers. Measuring them up to an arbitrary level of reading success won’t help become better readers. There will always be kids who love to read and those who don’t; there will always be kids who read more proficiently than others. In my experience, kids who say they don’t like to read are often the ones who may not feel confident in their reading skills. Attitude is often directly linked to confidence.
So what can we do? Do we throw up our hands and say, “It’s no use! They will never be where they are supposed to be!,” Yes, teaching reading is hard. Yes, learning to read is hard. But rather than surrender, I choose to fight back. Assess, be responsive, meet the students where they are at, regardless of where they “should” be, and target instruction to fill the gaps. This will mean differentiating instruction through small reading groups, regularly listening to kids read (either in person or through reading platform “listen back” features), and focusing on the goal of reading proficiency rather than grade level. Assessment, thoughtful and purposeful planning, urgency and differentiation are as important as they have ever been.
I truly believe, if we want kids to love to read, then we need to bring the joy of reading into their lives at home and at school. Read great books aloud to them every single day. Get excited about books with them. Read with them, to them, beside them, in front of them, on the couch, on the floor, on the grass, on the bed. Encourage them to practice reading, with books and reading platforms. Don’t turn reading into a chore for a score. Don’t make kids fill out reading logs. Don’t give out prizes for reading because reading is the prize. Just meet kids where they are at and help them grow from there to ensure they each have an equal shot at winning the prize.