Educators and schools are feeling great urgency to close learning gaps by accelerating learning and getting students back to grade level after the disruptions of COVID, even as the disruptions continue. Teachers are under immense pressure to produce literacy outcomes that demonstrate that students are recovering from lost instruction time. The federal government has created the largest ever investment in public education through ESSER funding (U.S. Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) to focus on learning recovery, and there is pressure on districts to spend the money to get fast results. The convergence of these demands for results and the professional and personal pressure on our teachers and administrators is enormous.

Research to determine the extent of unfinished learning as a result of the pandemic published in March 2021 indicated that reading fluency among second- and third-graders was approximately 30 percent behind a “typical” year (Stanford Graduate School of Education). New research from NWEA indicates that learning gaps may have stabilized. Compared to pre-pandemic, gaps have not increased since the end of the 2020-21 school year. NWEA researchers analyzed MAP Growth assessment scores from 6 million public school students in grades 3–8 from the fall of 2021 and compared them to the students in the fall of 2019. The study reveals, not surprisingly, that higher achievers made gains that were consistent with normative growth, and lower-achieving students were more likely to fall short of those goals. This research provides evidence that the impact of unfinished learning is inequitable and recovery efforts should be targeted to address the inequities, accordingly.

As schools and districts work toward learning recovery, the importance of closing reading gaps and maintaining strong skills is greater than ever. As reading is a foundational skill for learning, schools need an understanding of the literacy challenges that teachers and school leaders are facing amid the ongoing uncertainty of this 2021-22 school year and years to come. Schools need programs backed by evidence that they can trust to accelerate the learning lag stemming from the pandemic-related lost instructional time.

While instruction informed by reading science is necessary for all students, it is essential for students who are at risk for reading challenges due to dyslexia, developmental language disorder, or other factors. Teachers need real-time progress monitoring data, data-driven action plans, and instructional tools that allow them to deliver the right instruction either inside or outside the classroom.

With ESSER funds available to accelerate learning and make up for lost instructional time, there are many literacy vendors vying for district licenses. What is the best way to sort through their claims to find the right solution? Schools need to balance providing remediation to address learning loss while still covering on-grade material. Even though district administrators are anxious to address the problems, they do not have time to waste on products that are not proven to accomplish the task at hand. The clock is ticking for our students, and we need to correctly identify where they are in their learning journey and the instruction and support, they need to get back on track to grade level proficiency. Districts also have to determine a funding source for whatever literacy program they choose that will replace the ESSER funding when it runs out.

Also, it would be unfair to not recognize the burden that the pandemic has put on educators, students, and their families. Educators and schools have been stretched to the limit by the challenges of keeping their students learning. Despite the shortages, they have done amazing work in fast-tracking technology rollouts and learning how to teach remotely. Welcoming back students in person has required more adaptation to ensure each school community stays as healthy as possible and successfully reacclimates everyone to the classroom. However, teachers need even more support to make up for lost instruction time to get their students back on track, and families need to be able to depend on stable school routines.

Schools and districts need to know that the literacy program they choose is firmly grounded in the Science of Reading (i.e., more than 50 years of research) and has proven itself in real classrooms. Whether a literacy company has been in the market for 60 years or 60 days, there are ways to fact-check their solutions to determine if their research is valid, that they have demonstrated efficacy, and can fulfill the promises they make to teachers and students. For district leaders it is critical to understand the importance of the Science of Reading and the role of Structured Literacy as they review available literacy solutions.

The Science of Reading and Structured Literacy

Teaching reading is a complex process that incorporates decades of research into how students learn and how reading should be taught. Educators understand that teaching students to read fluently is the key to their overall academic success. We know more about how children learn to read and now more than ever people are paying more attention to the science.

Almost every literacy program claims their solution is based on the Science of Reading and some also claim their program follows a Structured Literacy instructional model. What does that mean exactly? These terms are not synonymous. The Science of Reading is the evidence. It is 50+ years of gold-standard research about what works in reading instruction and what skills are required in reading acquisition.

Science of Reading research shows that there are five critical skills to learning how to read proficiently:

  1. Phonology: the sound system
  2. Orthography: the writing system
  3. Morphology: the meaningful part of words
  4. Semantics: relationships among words
  5. Syntax: the structure of sentences

The Science of Reading is the evidence of what works best in reading instruction. The Science of Reading is the evidence and Structured Literacy is the application of that evidence in the classroom.

Structured Literacy was named by the Dyslexia Association as a way for educators to differentiate reading instruction programs that are truly informed by the Science of Reading from those that are not. As the science of reading research identifies that decoding and language comprehension skills are critical skills to teach students learning to read, Structured Literacy recognizes that those skills must be taught explicitly, systematically, cumulatively, and diagnostically. The Science of Reading is the only proven way to ensure that students become proficient readers and confident learners across the curriculum.

When choosing a new literacy program, schools should consider the following:

  1. Rigorous evidence that a program works with the student population you will use it with at your school. For example, if you are going to use the program with 3rd - 5th graders, is there evidence of it being used with those grades and demonstrating student gains? A bonus is if there is evidence of accelerated learning meaning that students can actually make more than one year of growth for one year of instruction.
  2. Make sure the solution is based in the Science of Reading and applies the principles of Structured Literacy. It should have both these elements. A lot of programs claim they are based on the Science of Reading, and some may not be. There are multiple types of research that demonstrate efficacy: third-party research, peer-review research; and research reviews from organizations like Evidence for ESSA. The program itself should be studied in the classrooms, not just claim that because it includes phonological awareness that it is effective and based in the science of reading.
  3. Factor in the type of implementation support and partnership each vendor offers. Look for partners that will not only help you use their products but help you determine how they fit into your existing schedule and curriculum. For best results, ensure their partnership extends beyond the initial implementation, and is not just a ‘one and done’ type training.
  4. The program needs an assessment component that can be given remotely and at scale to determine the depth of unfinished learning. Schools need that data to know how to meet students where they are and identify opportunities for growth for each student. This data will allow them to personalize instruction.
  5. Many teachers are not trained in how to analyze data to drive instruction. A good program will help define next steps and provide support for teachers. You should look for programs that help to connect the dots of data and then answer the teacher’s question, “What can I do on Monday morning in my classroom to help connect to students, personalize instruction and accelerate their learning.” The solution you choose should have this functionality.
  6. If a literacy solution says it provides personalized learning, make sure you can identify individualized pathways and determine the online support a student would receive. If a student continues to struggle after the initial support, he or she should get even more scaffolding or explicit instruction. For all students struggling with a lesson, the program should provide the teacher support on how to adapt to students’ needs.
  7. We know that blended learning, which includes online practice and teacher-led instruction, is a successful learning model when the components are connected via data. Research tells us that students need repetition, practice, and corrective feedback—all of these are great examples of using technology for what it does best. The technology provides students unlimited opportunities to work at their appropriate level until they are ready to move ahead while identifying areas where teacher-led instruction is needed to master a concept.

Teachers use the data from the students' online work to target instruction either 1:1 or in small groups. The key to blended learning is that the data of one instruction mode is feeding the other, and it is continuous, so that you see the full profile of the student.

A Checklist for Schools and Districts Choosing a Literacy Program

Here is a checklist to guide decision-making for school and district administrators as they evaluate literacy solutions to support their own literacy learning goals.

  • Does the program contain the five critical skills of the Science of Reading: phonology, morphology, orthography, semantics and syntax?
  • Does it use the principles of Structured Literacy to teach reading skills: explicitly, systematically, cumulatively, and diagnostically?
  • What kind of evidence does the vendor provide? Independent third-party evaluations, peer-review research, and ESSA evaluations are what to look for.
  • Is there evidence that it works with designated grade levels?
  • Is there evidence that it works with the same student populations (e.g., Emergent Bilinguals, etc.) you plan to use it for?
  • Is the support for professional learning and implementation sufficient for your teachers to feel confident in their ability to accelerate learning?
  • Does it include an easy-to-deploy assessment? And can it be done in a remote environment?
  • What type of data reports are included? It should contain reports at the student, classroom, school, and district level.
  • Is the data actionable for teachers? Does the program help them interpret the data to personalize instruction for each student?
  • Is the program easy to implement for educators, students, and families? Or does it feel like another add-on to an already full plate?
  • Is the program flexible? Can it be delivered in-person, remotely, and in a hybrid learning model? And seamlessly move from one model to the other as needs change?
  • If you are using ESSER funds for this purchase, have you identified funding sources to carry on the program after ESSER funds are spent?

The good news is that there is new research that provides evidence both of students maintaining their learning levels (i.e., not demonstrating learning loss) and student acceleration to more than a year’s growth during COVID.

What’s Next for Schools and Districts

Schools and districts recognize the urgency of identifying the degree of students’ unfinished learning as a result of the pandemic. Using research-proven literacy programs that assess where students are and provide instructional support to move them to grade-level proficiency as quickly as possible is the remedy. To be successful, literacy programs need to be grounded in the Science of Reading, feature Structured Literacy principles, provide scaffolding and support for both students and teachers, and generate actionable data to personalize instruction. There is no time to waste on programs that have not been proven to work. Choosing a blended learning literacy program with the features discussed above is a good investment for ESSER funds and will successfully address students’ unfinished literacy learning.

About the Author

Liz Brooke, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is a lifelong learner who is dedicated to empowering literacy educators and supporting students. She has worked as a classroom teacher, a Speech Language Pathologist, and Director of Intervention at the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). Currently, Dr. Brooke serves as the Chief Learning Officer at Lexia, a Cambium Learning company.