U of A professor finds COVID-19 pandemic is impairing elementary students’ reading proficiency

To address this issue, George Georgiou believes more government funding should be channelled to supporting education online learning.

After conducting two research studies among students in Edmonton school districts, a University of Alberta professor found that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting many young readers behind the learning curve.

George Georgiou, a professor in the Faculty of Education and a director of the J.P. Das Centre on Developmental and Learning Disabilities at the U of A, conducted two research studies with 25 schools in three school divisions. He compared the reading ability of over 4,000 students per grade levels one to nine before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The research studies found that grade one to three students performed worse than in previous years.

The two research studies were conducted online. The first study on students’ regular assessments, and the second study on grade one children in Edmonton Catholic and Fort Vermilion school divisions.

Reading disabilities are Georgiou’s area of research and he has worked with the schools in the research studies for 12 years. Knowing they had standardized reading assessments of their students from the past five years or more, he asked to compare their scores this September to that of the past three years.

“The performances of younger students in both studies were worse when compared to that of previous years,” Georgiou said. “In the first study, grade one to three students performed worse this September when compared to previous years… In other words, the learning losses were about six to eight months.”

In the second study, out of a group of 409 grade one students below their reading level last January, only 85 of them are now average readers in grade two. For Georgiou, this should have been the other way round.

“Only 85 students should continue to have problems, but now only 85 kids can read,” he said.

Georgiou stated that one possible reason for these performances was the low effectiveness of online schooling with young kids. 

“When schools closed last March, teachers were asked to teach online,” he explained. “But we forgot that online reading intervention for young kids is not as effective as face to face interaction, so kids have continued to struggle.”  

Another reason he pointed to was the budget cuts to the Alberta education system due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many of the services and the resources that the schools had available, like educational assistance and special education teachers, were no longer available because of budget cuts,” he said.

Although Georgiou’s results found that reading levels were lower on average for grade one to three students, there were variations across schools depending on social factors.

“For schools in very affluent communities, the learning losses are less than in areas where the schools serve mostly lower socioeconomic status families, or families that have many children who are English language learners or immigrants,” Georgiou said.

As a solution to his findings, Georgiou said there is a need to start prioritizing targeting vulnerable populations when teaching reading skills. He suggested that grade one to three students who need targeted intervention in their reading should be taught in small groups and not among everyone in the classroom online.   

“They are not learning much during that one hour with everybody else. Instead of having them for an hour during that session, maybe we can arrange an hour, providing them with online teaching, with more targeted intervention for these kids.”

Georgiou also recommended online resources for parents and teachers to assist their young readers. These include free sites like ABRACADABRA a website that offers a range of activities for kids at no cost, and Reading AZ, another website with about 1,200 books for kids.

Apart from these resources, Georgiou also expressed the need for the government to invest more money in resources or staff for schools to carry out their jobs well, especially now that it is online.

“Managing online learning, you not only have to know how to teach, but you also have to understand how to teach reading online. It’s a second layer of difficulty that teachers have to master.”

“We cannot expect teachers to teach their whole class, teach it online, and also teach the struggling readers separately. We need to have skilled personnel to do this kind of job.”

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