Trends in Pre and Post Pandemic Reading Levels

In my opinion, we as Americans have a very poor view of reading in general. 

When I asked my students what they thought about the books they read when they were in school, the same words always popped up. 

Boring.  Uninteresting.  Repetitive.

For most students in the U.S. (and maybe the world), reading is something that has to be done for a grade, not out of enjoyment. 

a girl reading at a book at her desk in a classroom

“Reading” in school, by and large, amounts to little more than more rote-memorization. Teachers force students to cram as much unimportant information as they can into their young minds about things that will only ever truly help them on quiz night at their local pub. Once a decent number of students are able to pass the school tests and the teachers reach their quotas for the year, new students come in and the cycle is repeated.

Parents reading this article can breathe easy because I don’t think you are responsible for this one. Falling literacy rates are mostly the fault of teachers and the American education system this time around.  I will talk about the importance of parents helping their children read for fun and the very important role you play at the end of this piece.

In previous articles, we talked about falling literacy rates in children and adults, whether they be in the United States or internationally.

Here, I would like to focus specifically on literacy rates in children, and how our education system has caused a sort of “reading crisis” as it were. 

It turns out that levels were already starting to drop even before the pandemic. COVID, and the resulting institutional responses, made a bad situation worse; that’s what we will be discussing here.

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Reading Levels Before the Pandemic

Results from national and international exams among 4th and 8th-grade students showed that the reading performances in children had already started declining even as recently as 2019.

Why is this important for you and your child?

According to an article from The Atlantic, American schools haven’t been able to teach children to read properly for the past 20 years.

The problems plaguing students in reading are legion, but there is one in particular that I think goes to the heart of the issue.

It is a little thing called reading comprehension.

When I was a student, reading comprehension was merely a test-taking skill. It was needed to pass the English/Reading parts of a variety of exams, from your state’s graduation test to the SAT. 

Students had to know how to answer questions like, “What is the main idea of the passage?” or “What does the word ‘feature’ refer to in Line 3?”

I would argue that most teachers have a results-first approach to teaching reading. This is not completely their fault, as our educational institutions perpetuate it by forcing them to think in terms of quotas rather than actual learning.

They get as many students as they can to pass the tests and then hope that they actually learn to read along the way. 

Students are given passages about a variety of topics that focus on the skill they need to learn to pass the tests, not the content that we often assume they are getting. 

The Atlantic article goes on to say that cognitive scientists have known for years that this type of “comprehension-focused” approach does not increase reading levels in students. There is no guarantee that they will be able to utilize said skills during a test, especially if the passage is about some historic event they are not familiar with.

Secondly, it won’t help them in their daily lives when they become adults. When was the last time you read an interesting book and asked yourself, “What’s the main idea of this chapter?”

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, argues that background knowledge and vocabulary are essential for a student to understand a particular text and are far more important than so-called comprehension skills. 

This makes sense. The test writers have a limit to how many words they can include in a passage, so they are forced to leave out a lot of background information. 

More importantly, they will leave out information that they assume the student already knows.

However, if you’ve been spending all of your time focusing on “finding the main idea” and “how to make inferences” (I hated those questions, did you?) without learning more about literature, history, or art, how exactly are you supposed to do well on these standardized tests?

The Connection Between Income and Literacy

anonymous ethnic tutor helping little multiracial students with task in classroom

The situation becomes even more dire if the student comes from a low-income family. A 2003 study from the University of Kansas revealed that low-income students are exposed to an astounding 30 million fewer words than their higher-income counterparts by the time they are 4 years old. 

If you add the lack of teaching proper reading skills to these low-income class students, it is no wonder that reading rates were falling even before the pandemic. Unfortunately, the pandemic most likely made a bad situation even worse.

Reading Levels During the Pandemic and After

Falling reading levels in young students have become a global issue. To put things in perspective, UNESCO reports that 100 million children around the world are not projected to meet the minimum proficiency level in reading due to COVID-19. This is mostly due to full or partial closures of schools, with disruptions lasting for an average of 25 weeks.

The number of children experiencing reading difficulties rose 20 percent in 2020, from 460 million to 584 million children worldwide.

Now let’s bring the focus back to the United States. Sadly there was what the New York Times called a kindergarten crisis in 2020, months after the pandemic started. According to an analysis that the NY Times did with Stanford University, 10,000 local public schools in the country lost about 20% of their kindergartners. Most of them were from low-income neighborhoods.

Students tell only half of the story. A press release from the National Center for Education Statistics announced that in March of this year (2022), 44 percent of public schools reported vacancies for full or part-time teachers. 61 percent of these schools listed COVID-19 as one main cause of these vacancies. 

For more information on teacher shortages, please listen to Episode 16 of the One-Room Education Podcast!

This led to far fewer hands-on hours that students had with teachers than before the pandemic. Combine this with school closures, spotty access to remote learning, and class cancellations for quarantine, and you have to wonder if this was the type of environment where reading levels could improve.

Personally, I don’t think so. I have had young students admit to me that during the remote learning phase of the pandemic, they would pretend to listen to the teacher while they were playing video games, or they would pretend their camera wasn’t working and take a nap during class. 

Students had to try to study while having easy access to their comfortable beds, Netflix, and junk food. Where is the incentive to learn?

a boy using a smartphone while lying on a sofa

The situation is even worse when you consider masks. Talia Croguennec, a special education teacher, had an interview with the New York Post where she explained that her students had been hampered by wearing masks. 

She explained that not being able to see the facial expressions of their teacher delayed the child’s ability to comprehend facial expressions! 

Are you surprised? I hope not. 

To learn more about the effects of masks on young children’s development, check out our article on COVID speech delay in children here!

Our public education system has dropped the ball in terms of making sure our children have the basic concepts needed for reading, especially post-pandemic.

However, the pandemic did bring a bit of good news when it comes to parents reading to their children.

Reading at Home with Your Children

It is so interesting how something as devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic could bring about some positive results, but it did.

According to this journal article, parents of two to four-year-olds began reading more to their children during the pandemic than they did before it. 

This is great news because it is now evident that parents understand the importance of reading to their children. Even when schools were closing around the country, they were there to pick up the slack. Good on them!

The article goes on to explain how important reading is for children especially during their early childhood years, as this period drastically affects their academic future and development, for better or worse.

An article from the National Literacy Trust announced that reading among older children had also increased. The children surveyed explained that they had taken more of an interest in reading since the number of leisure activities they could do were limited during the pandemic.

Now at face value, this might look like good news. However, 92% of children said that their favorite form of “reading” came from direct/text messages, followed by video game communications (87%). 

The pandemic may have pushed our children even further away from the idea of reading books for fun than before.

This idea doesn’t sit well with me. Therefore, in my next article, I will go into more detail about the importance of reading to your child. I will also discuss ways for you to incorporate reading into your child’s life that are fun for them and you! Stay tuned!

For more info on the importance of parental involvement in a child’s life, please check out this episode of The State of Education, presented by One-Room Education’s podcast: Your Students Need You!

If you liked this article, please also check out my Falling Literacy Rates Series Part 1 and Part 2 here on One-Room Education. 

Make sure to sign up for notifications from One-Room Education below so you don’t miss any future content! 

What is your opinion about reading levels for children post-pandemic? Do you agree with the article? Let us know in the comments!

girl in old fashioned dress standing in library holding books


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