Young Alberta readers falling behind during pandemic, studies say

Young readers in Alberta are lagging behind the learning curve in the wake of the pandemic, two recent University of Alberta studies show.

'The findings are quite alarming'

A University of Alberta professor's studies show the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the reading ability of children in the second and third grade. (Whitney Leggett/Associated Press)

Young readers in Alberta are lagging behind the learning curve in the wake of the pandemic, two recent University of Alberta studies show.

"The findings are quite alarming because we know that reading is associated in the long run with higher dropout rates and higher unemployment rates," George Georgiou said in a recent interview on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

The educational psychology professor and director of the J.P. Das Centre in Developmental and Learning Disabilities conducted two studies looking at reading test scores for Alberta children.

The first study analyzed reading test scores in September 2020 versus the previous three years using testing data on reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension from eight Edmonton-area schools.

It found students in the second and third grade scored consistently worse across the three measures, though the difference was still small enough, it could be reversed.

"We found that on average the kids perform between six to eight months below their grade level," Georgiou said. Students in Grade 4 and above, who mostly showed positive results, tend to have moved beyond reading as a process, to reading for pleasure.

"That's why it's extremely important to get it right from the beginning," he said.

George Georgiou is a professor at the University of Alberta in the educational psychology department. (Submitted by George Georgiou)

The second study, funded by Alberta Education, followed 1,600 Grade 1 students on multiple reading tasks from September 2019 until February. Georgiou used those scores to determine students who were at-risk and then tested those children again in September 2020.

He found only 85 of 409 children — just under 20 per cent — were reading at an average level. Sixty per cent of the children tested were at a lower standard in September than in January.

Georgiou speculates school closures and online learning have contributed to the problem as they do not allow students to participate in face-to-face interventions. Another issue is that schools were simply not prepared for transitioning learning to a digital format. 

"We were all caught off guard," he said. "We didn't expect this to happen."

The third possible reason, according to Georgiou, is budget cuts in the spring that were expected to result in layoffs for educational assistants.

There are avenues for remediation however, Georgiou said. Knowing that students in the lowest grades are most affected, resources should be focused on them, he said.

Georgiou also recommends teachers prioritize the foundational skills of learning, reading and teaching the young students on a daily basis, while parents read to their children for 20-30 minutes every day.

Parents "will help the kids learn or comprehend what they're reading and have rich discussions with their children," he said. 

Georgiou has submitted his findings in a paper for The Reading League Journal, where it is under review.