In-person learning helped fill reading gaps during the pandemic

A study led by a North Carolina State University researcher found that although there have been significant learning losses in reading for elementary school students during the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face learning opportunities have helped some of these students mitigate the learning loss and make progress in reading compared to accelerate for online learners. Younger elementary school students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, English learners and students with disabilities have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic school closures.

“Online classes were inevitable during the pandemic, but in-person classes compensated,” said study lead author Jackie Relyea, an assistant professor of education at NC State. “Although children in this large North Carolina school district who chose in-person instruction spent about two months in school during the pandemic, many of them experienced faster reading growth over time than their peers who chose full distance learning . This is consistent with the evidence we have seen of learning losses in the summer.”

The study published in the journal Read and writecompared the average reading gains of third, fourth, and fifth graders in a single major North Carolina school district to the Northwest Evaluation Association’s (NWEA) Reading Academic Progress Measurement Test (MAP), a computer test that assesses students’ basic reading abilities , Language and writing, vocabulary and text comprehension.

They compared average student results at the start and end of the 2020-21 school year to average student gains in the 2018-19 school year. During the pandemic, the district offered students the opportunity to return to school, which allowed the researchers to compare the impact of classroom instruction versus online instruction.

“During the fall semester, students had 10 days of face-to-face time while the rest of the semester was online, and in the spring they came to school for almost 50 days,” Relyea said. “The other group was completely remote the whole time.”

During the pandemic, third, fourth, and fifth graders achieved lower reading gains than high school students, on average, in the 2018-19 school year. The steepest declines by age were in third graders. During the pandemic, their average gain of 48% was less than half the average gain for students in the 2018-19 school year, while the average for fourth graders was 65% of the gain for students in the 2018-19 school year and the fifth graders averaged 58% .

“Third graders typically learn and build basic reading skills, such as word reading, spelling, vocabulary, and text comprehension,” Relyea said. “They need explicit instruction and guided practices to become independent readers, and they’re also still developing self-regulatory skills for home learning.”

The researchers also found lower reading gains for third- and fourth-grade students from lower socioeconomic status households during the pandemic, compared to pre-pandemic students and students from higher socioeconomic status households. They also saw a similar trend for English learners.

“Students from a high socioeconomic background might have had better access to educational resources, technology, parental support, and a stable internet connection while homeschooling,” Relyea said. “For English learners, teachers provided distance learning resources, but there were limited opportunities for these students to develop their English language skills through interaction and academic conversations with their peers and teachers.”

Among students with disabilities, gains in reading during the pandemic have been dramatically lower than among students with disabilities in 2018-19, with the largest declines among third and fourth graders.

“For students with disabilities, many special education services have been suspended during the pandemic,” Relyea said. “Most teachers have faced challenges trying to meet the special needs of students with disabilities. There was a significant loss for these students.”

When researchers compared the reading gains of students who chose distance learning in 2020-21 with students who chose to return to in-person learning whenever possible within the group of students from lower socioeconomic groups and English language learners, they found that students opted for face-to-face tuition Learning made greater progress and helped fill in the gaps for students.

“It was interesting to see that students who chose the classroom instruction started the 2020-21 school year at a lower reading level but progressed better over time than their peers who chose the fully remote option.” said Relyea.

While the performance differences in fourth and fifth grade students narrowed significantly, progress in third graders was less pronounced. They also observed an inconsistent pattern among students with disabilities participating in face-to-face classes.

“An online learning environment generally requires learners to work more independently and have self-regulatory learning strategies and metacognitive skills to manage their learning,” Relyea said. “However, with limited scaffolding and guidance available during the sudden move to remote settings, many younger children, particularly those in vulnerable groups, may not have been able to develop these skills enough to support their learning.”

In future work, the researchers want to include detailed contextual information on online and face-to-face teaching during the pandemic.

“We don’t have data on what was going on during the pandemic with distance learning versus in-person classes,” Relyea said. “However, delving into the characteristics of classroom practices and student interactions would help us better understand how and why face-to-face learning mode provided students with enhanced learning opportunities to achieve continued growth in reading during the pandemic, particularly for lower-achieving students.” .

“It would also give us insight into online teaching approaches and resources that distance learning needs to consider to meet the diverse learning needs of students going forward.”

The study, The COVID-19 Impact on Reading Achievement Growth of Grade 3-5 Students in a US Urban School District: Variation Across Student Characteristics and Instructional Modalities, was published online in Read and write. In addition to Relyea, the other authors were Patrick Rich from the American Institute for Research and James S. Kim and Joshua B. Gilbert from Harvard University. Funding came from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.


Note to the editor: The study summary follows.

“The Impact of COVID-19 on Growth in Reading Achievement among Grades 3-5 Students in an Urban US School District: Differences Between Student Characteristics and Instructional Modalities”

authors: Jackie Eunjung Relyea, Patrick Rich, James S Kim, Joshua B Gilbert

Released: Nov 14, 2022, Read and write


Abstract: The current study aimed to examine the impact of COVID-19 on the growth in reading achievement of students in grades 3 through 5 in a large urban school district in the United States and to examine whether the impact varies depending on student demographics and instructional modalities differentiate students. Specifically, we used administrative data from the school district to examine the extent to which students made progress in reading in the 2020-2021 school year compared to the typical pre-COVID-19 2018-2019 school year. We also examined whether the effects of students’ instructional modality on reading growth varied across demographics. Overall, students made smaller average reading gains in the 2020-2021 nine-month school year than in the 2018-2019 school year, with a learning loss effect size of 0.54, 0.27, and 0.28 standard deviation units for Grades 3, 4, and 5, respectively. Significantly lower reading gains were observed among third grade students, students from high poverty backgrounds, English learners and students with dyslexia. Additionally, the results suggest that among students with similar demographics, higher-achieving students tended to choose the full distance learning option, while lower-achieving students appeared to choose face-to-face learning at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. However, students receiving face-to-face instruction were most likely to show steady gains in reading throughout the school year, while initially higher-performing students receiving distance learning stagnated or declined, particularly in Spring 2021. Our findings support the notion that face-to-face instruction during the pandemic can act to compensate for underperforming students, particularly from historically marginalized or at-risk student populations.