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Reading and Literacy: Beyond the English Classroom

What’s the Problem?

Research findings indicate that the pandemic has had significant, long-term effects on student learning. Pandemic-related learning disruptions have left students roughly “four months behind in reading”[1] when compared to historical data[2] due to unfinished learning, a term that describes learning in a typical year that students simply could not complete.[3] While this learning loss is quantified in different ways (e.g., “three to six percentile points behind,” “four months behind,” “30 percent behind,” “half a school year”), the clear consensus is that student reading development lagged during the pandemic and continues to do so.

A high concentration of research focuses on elementary-aged students: recent nationwide findings indicate that elementary students ended last school year “two more grade levels below expectations than in any previous year.”[4] The Stanford Graduate School of Education found that elementary students were “30 percent behind”[5] in reading comprehension and fluency. While, of course, an elementary classroom is significantly different from a high school classroom, initial research findings suggest that the “pandemic may be having an equal impact on high school learning.”[6] Even if high school reading and learning loss due to the pandemic is not as significant as that in elementary schools (a fair assessment, I think), what is clear is that this degree of learning loss at any age will come with long-term, far-reaching effects to which high schools are not immune, either with their current students or the students they will soon inherit.

Even since learning has largely resumed to approximate normalcy, “students remain behind in both math and reading.”[7] Furthermore, pandemic-related or, more broadly, health-related absenteeism only serves to slow any efforts to recoup lost ground.[8] On average, student absences are conservatively estimated to be up by a factor of 2.7 since the pandemic began.[9] Research and educational leaders suggest that the pandemic will have lasting ripple effects on learning for a generation of students.[10] Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Chief of Education, acknowledged that “students need intensive support to recover lost education.”[11] Resuming school as normal (or near-normal) has resulted in improved academic performance; however, achievement and skill levels are still below pre-pandemic levels.[12]

In an effort to sound the alarm of these realities, organizations have worked to quantify this learning loss in different ways in order to demonstrate its far-reaching effects and turn abstract ideas into concrete consequences. Current estimates state that pandemic-affected students may experience a reduction of lifetime earnings “by an average of $49,000 to $61,000” due to unfinished learning. More broadly, this results in an “annual GDP loss of $128 billion to $188 billion.”[13] While these numbers may not mean much to the classroom teacher and his or her practices, they emphasize the already belabored point that this is not going away anytime soon; it is, therefore, imperative to collectively work towards the goal of sharpening our students’ skills in reading and literacy.

Who Can Help?

The necessity for this collective effort lies in the principle that “reading fluency is fundamental for academic development . . . [and] problems with this skill can interfere with students’ ability to learn other subjects.” Reading, in other words, is “a kind of gateway to the development of academic skills across all disciplines”[14] and these foundational reading skills “[underpin] success across all content areas.”[15] If this is true, instructing and coaching reading and literacy cannot be the sole responsibility of the English teacher and should instead be “connected to any and every subject.”[16] Literacy is a broader term that describes “competence or knowledge in a specific area.”[17] More specifically, students must “be able to read and understand written material associated with different content areas, learn from various types of texts, and apply the information they read to new learning.”[18] This is academic literacy. While English teachers may be responsible for the largest share of the burden of developing these skills, making sure that students are equipped to engage reading and literacy in all of these domains is the goal of an entire faculty. In other words, certain genres of reading and types of literacies are more specific to different content and subject areas, and students are best served when they receive reading and literacy instruction in all of their classes.

If students struggle with content or skills in different content areas, it may be that reading and literacy deficiencies are the root cause. So, rather than viewing reading and literacy as a skill that is specific to the English classroom, working to integrate reading and literacy instruction across all content areas is to the overall benefit of student learning. The higher-level work that teachers ask of students (e.g., constructing meaning, making inferences, linking ideas, drawing conclusions) often begins with reading and literacy instruction.[19]

As previously mentioned, reading and literacy deficiencies that begin at the elementary level persist and even worsen at the secondary level; according to current ACT reports, “only about half [of high school students] demonstrated college-level reading proficiency.”[20] Though it will look different for each content area, teaching reading and literacy is for all of us, not only because of the learning loss and pandemic-related challenges that will continue to affect education in the near future, but also because of how this approach is simply best for student growth and development.

Footnotes [1]Barnum, “The Pandemic’s Toll” [2] McKinsey, “The Lingering Effects” [3] McKinsey, “The Lingering Effects” [4] McKinsey, “The Lingering Effects” [5] Spector, “New Stanford Study” [6] McKinsey, “An Emerging” [7] McKinsey, “An Emerging” [8] Spector, “New Stanford Study” [9] McKinsey, “An Emerging” [10] Unicef, “Learning Losses” [11] Unicef, “Scale of Education” [12] McKinsey, “An Emerging” [13] McKinsey, “An Emerging [14] Spector, “New Stanford Study” [15] Minero, “A Game-Changing Practice” [16] Madda, “Not Just for Reading Class” [17] Oxford Language, “Literacy” [18] Reed and Vaughn, “What are the Responsibilities” [19] Reed and Vaughn, “What are the Responsibilities” [20] Reed and Vaughn, “What are the Responsibilities”


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