We need to talk about second grade.
Over the past academic year, the return to in-person learning has revealed the social and educational limitations of online and hybrid learning. Helping children learn to interact with others again, supporting them as they process trauma, and providing intervention have become the hallmarks of this wave of crisis learning. Second and third-grade students are particularly at risk.
As a former first-grade teacher, I was concerned when schools closed. I was worried about young children missing intentional reading instruction at a critical moment. In March 2020, I shared my view on how school might be different when we all returned in September 2020.
“It is likely that the existing inequities in education will grow exponentially.
This is most concerning when it comes to children learning to read. Reading is a complex process. For many people, it is something of a black box. Teachers work hard to create phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, and syllabification skills to help children prepare to read. They provide text-rich environments, labeling furniture and other items with their names in print.”
While most children learn to read with effective instruction, I highlighted that others struggle and need specialized, expert help. “Some [students] have reading difficulties. Others simply need more targeted intervention. Parents are not trained for this work, and teachers will struggle to support individual students in reading from afar.”
I became concerned with reading in my first year teaching first grade. I had a student — we’ll call her Ava — who was behind her peers. She was also resistant to my efforts, which were probably misplaced as a second-year teacher. One day, after months of urging her to use the sounds she knew to write anything she wanted, she gave me a text in all caps with a picture of a princess.
It began something like “WSDWSABUTEFLPRNSS” or “Once, there was a beautiful princess.”
Ava went on to write that the princess was sad because she wanted to read, but no one would teach her how.
I felt a tremendous sense of failure and responsibility. The method I used was not enough for this child — this beautiful princess. I went back to the drawing board and learned what I didn’t know — how to actually teach reading to someone who wouldn’t just figure it out. I refined my strategies over the years and taught many children how to read.
I was right to address Ava’s needs with a sense of urgency. Children who struggle with reading earn less money as adults, are at greater risk of not graduating high school, and are more likely to spend time in the criminal justice system.
Right now, we all need to be concerned. Online instruction in Kindergarten and Grade 1 allowed for some continuity in learning, but the New York Times recently reported that early reading performance is at a twenty-year low. Assessment data from iReady revealed, as of October 2021, American students in Grades 1–8 had an average of 2 months of unfinished learning in reading and 4 months in math.
These statistics are averages, which is troubling. Students in the US, and around the world, are in the midst of what McKinsey & Company calls a K-shaped recovery in which some students have quickly recovered from loss of learning time while others have fallen further behind.
We need to dig deeper to understand what these statistics mean for a Grade 2 or 3 teacher and their students. Most teachers are accustomed to providing some level of intervention for struggling students; however, the percentage of Grade 2 students reading 2 or more years below the required level has increased by 42%. This means that over 30% of students in an average Grade 2 class now need intensive support, and teachers, schedules, and resources to make this happen. Statistics from Grade 3 are similar.
I was not taught how to explicitly teach reading, a nationwide problem, it seems. The March 8th New York Times article underscores a shortage of educators trained in phonics and phonemic awareness. This is exacerbated by “the great resignation” and ongoing disruptions to learning.
However, with swift action, many of our second and third-grade students can be back on track by the end of the next academic year.
- We need to get real about data. Good data lets us know where students are, what they do well, and what challenges they face. It provides insights and allows us to work towards better outcomes. Teacher delivered running-records are time-consuming and fraught with opportunities for human error. Assessments such as Lexplore provide a rapid Dyslexia screening and automated running record in under five minutes, allowing teachers to target their instruction to a child’s needs with high accuracy.
- We need to build fluency. Yes, comprehension matters — a lot, but prioritizing comprehension over fluency in the younger grades is risky. It’s possible for a 7-year-old with weak fluency to comprehend an age-appropriate book. It’s rare for a 15-year-old with poor fluency to do the same. Microsoft Reading Progress is a free tool available within Office 365 (also free) that provides fluency practice based on leveled or teacher-selected texts.
- We need to recognize that an app is not an intervention. Yes, some children can learn to read on a basic level by using any readily available reading practice apps. However, children two or more years behind need expert and highly responsive intervention. Several apps are close to delivering this, but none have managed yet.
- We need to be flexible but rigorous. The next year will not be business as usual. Grade 2 and 3 teachers may find that many of their students need to review Kindergarten concepts, while others may be ready for Grade 5 content. We need to provide additional time for scheduled intervention and enrichment within the school day. We also need to ensure that all adults in the school are equipped to support this initiative.
- We need to provide teachers with resources and training. A Grade 2 or 3 teacher will need guidance to engage in the explicit teaching of reading. In some schools, they could “buddy up” with Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers to share tips and tools. Other schools will need to invest in programs such as Corrective Reading, CKLA, or Fundations to allow teachers to focus on curriculum adaptation rather than curriculum generation.