Local author Karen Ehrhardt

Local author Karen Ehrhardt leads a lively discussion about her book "This Jazz Man" at Hatch Elementary School before the pandemic changed everything for local schools. Photo courtesy Jennie Book

The pandemic has touched many students with heightened stress, disruptions and remote learning hurdles, but experts say it may have the greatest impact on the youngest learners, those in the formative years of learning to read.

Creating a language-rich environment on Zoom has been hard for teachers, and that may impact reluctant readers who may not spend enough time reading at home.

“If you had a childhood where a bedtime story was not a normal part of life, you might not see the value of it,” said Seena Hawley, who runs the Berkeley Baby Book Project, an affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which gives children a book a month from babyhood to age 5. “There are also some parents who aren’t great readers themselves, so they may be intimidated by reading to children.”

Hawley will never forget encountering one such reluctant reader, a boisterous 8-year-old named Reggie who actively disliked reading.

“I think it had always been painful for him. He was on his guard,” said Hawley, 61, who taught elementary school in San Jose for 12 years. “He had never known the sheer pleasure of being read to, so he was very skeptical. He expected it to be no fun, all work and no reward.”

Assessing the impact of the pandemic on children who may not have sharpened their reading skills as well as expected is crucial, many experts say, as students return to school. That’s because early literacy, the development of skills needed to transition from learning to read to reading to learn, is foundational to later academic success. Studies suggest that many children have lost momentum on such fundamental skills. The university-based research organization PACE found that reading fluency in second- and third-graders fell about 30 percent behind the usual benchmark in a study comparing data from fall 2020 with fall 2019.

“Reading is kind of a gateway to the development of academic skills across all disciplines,” said Ben Domingue, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University and lead author on the PACE study. “It’s a key that opens all of the doors. If a kid can’t read effectively by third grade or so, they’re unlikely to be able to access content in their other courses.”

According to the report, time is a critical factor. Children who haven’t mastered reading by the time they enter third and fourth grade, when word problems are numerous and reading comprehension is critical, might be set up to fail.

“Children who fall behind developing reading skills can quickly find themselves struggling to keep up throughout their coursework,” according to the report, “and there is thus concern that inadequacies in reading instruction during the pandemic might have cascading effects for years to come.”

This story originally appeared in EdSource, a nonprofit source of education news.

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