When 4th Grade Can’t Read: A Phoenix School Has a New Way to Fight Pandemic Learning Loss

PHOENIX – One recent morning, 10 fourth-graders clumped in a circle on the floor over magnetic boards, moving lettered tiles to spell the one-syllable words their teacher, Katerah Layne, shouted.

“Rub,” said Mrs. Layne. As the students mixed their tiles, a few confused the letters “b” and “d”.

“It’s OK to be confused,” Mrs. Layne reassures students.

Next, she called the word “fish.” All students spelled it correctly. “We all have the ‘in’ sound. I’m so proud of you, ”said Mrs. Layne.

Each fall, about five students show up for Mrs. Layne’s class at Sevilla Elementary School East in Phoenix, which lags far behind fourth-grade reading skills. This year, she was stunned to find nearly half of her 25 students tested in kindergarten to first-class reading levels.

When the pandemic disrupted schools in the spring of 2020, educators predicted that distance learning would cause many children to fail, especially students of color and from poor families. Test results from the first months of distance learning showed that students dropped months later in reading and math. Since this fall, when many students returned to classrooms for the first time after 18 months of interruptions, some teachers have found the learning loss worse than expected.

The situation is terrible in classrooms like Mrs. Laynes, located in the Alhambra Elementary School District, where many parents work part-time jobs in construction, cleaning and fast food restaurants. The district has faced a growing reading and writing problem over the past 15 years. But the pandemic has turned it into a crisis: A test conducted this month to measure the number of students who completed state grade levels revealed that of the 422 second to fourth grades in Seville East, 58% were determined to to be minimally proficient in their class standards of English language art — the lowest rank.

All classes in Seville East now include a component in reading skills, including training and music.

During the 2020-21 school year, the rate at which students learned nationwide was slower across all student groups, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income level, compared to pre-pandemic historical averages, according to a July report from NWEA, an Oregon-based nonprofit education firm. . Math performance was as much as 12 percentile points lower in the spring of 2021 compared to a typical year. Reading performance fell by as much as 6 percentage points compared to before the pandemic among all students. The results come from about 5.5 million students from third to eighth grade at 12,500 public schools who took the assessments in 2018-2019 and in the school year 2020-2021.

But the drop in reading scores among blacks and Latinos in fourth-grade students was, on average, double that of white and Asian-American students. At the same time, fourth-graders — a critical time in education — experienced three times as much learning loss in reading compared to those enrolled in low-poverty schools.

In Seville East, the majority of students come from poor households without a strong English background, which limited their natural exposure to the kind of oral language development and vocabulary offered by schools, and children from richer and higher educated families still had access to homes during the pandemic. , said Cecilia Maes, the district inspector.

Despite many years of struggle with low reading scores, teachers in Seville East were surprised by what they saw when the classrooms reopened for personal learning this fall.

Many fourth graders returned to school and read at the same level they had in second grade when the pandemic started — leaving them with more than two grade levels now. A few have gone back, tests show. The school’s latest diagnostic test results showed that there were more fourth graders behind reading expectations at grade level than students in any other class.

Sevilla East’s new principal Erika Twohy used federal stimulus funds to hire an academic recovery teacher for fourth graders and another staff member to focus on reading intervention.

To address the pandemic-related learning loss, Erika Twohy, Sevilla East’s new principal, used federal incentives to hire a fourth-grade academic recovery teacher and another staff member to focus on fourth- and second-grade reading intervention. She also demands that all classroom teachers and 14 teaching assistants be trained in the Wilson Reading System, a program that places great emphasis on phonetics.

All classes now include a reading component, including physical exercise and music. The gymnastics teacher has begun injecting oral language development into the classroom by breaking down the meaning of words like “defense.” This approach is designed to maximize every moment of personal learning and immerse students in reading skills to compensate for the lost time, Ms. Twohy said.

Dr. Maes, the superintendent, said the district is focused on targeted training so teachers like Mrs. Layne know how to learn first-class reading skills to help fourth-graders.

But lack of staff throughout the district makes it difficult to fully resolve the issue. There are currently more than 100 vacancies and it is extremely difficult to find temporary staff. As dozens of Seville East teachers had to take a day off to be trained in the new curriculum, the district had to send academic coaches, CEOs and computer specialists to oversee classrooms.

Jordan Lopez, white mask, sits next to teacher Katerah Layne in a reading class in Seville East.


Yoree Koh / The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Twohy is unsure of how much reason her students may pose this year, and feels the pressure, especially when it comes to fourth graders who are going to middle school next year.

“I feel like we are running out of time,” Twohy said.

Students who do not study in third grade are more likely to drop out of high school and end up in jail, decades of research have shown. In fourth grade, students should be able to use their reading skills to learn other subjects, such as math, social studies and science, educators say.

How well children are able to read in the early grades is predictive of where they will end up later in life, said Carol Scheffner Hammer, vice dean of research and professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who specializes in children’s languages. and literacy development.

For nine-year-old Jordan Lopez, learning from home was not easy. The internet often went out or he would lose track of his schedule and log on an hour late. He rarely asked questions.

Jordan is one of the fourth-graders in Mrs. Layne’s class trying to get past a first-class reading and writing level. He barely read during the pandemic. He said he had no books at his home.

Cecilia Maes, principal of the Alhambra Elementary School District, said the district is focused on targeted training for teachers to improve reading skills.

Jordan, who lives with his father and grandfather, wakes up between 3am and 4am on school days. His father gets up early to get to his construction job on time and drops Jordan off at his grandmother’s house along the way so she can drive him to school. He spends the small morning hours on TikTok, sometimes making his own comic videos until it’s time to go to school at 8:10

After arriving at the school, Jordan would split the paper and scream when there was a writing assignment, Ms. Layne said. He said he did not like reading.

After elementary school enrollment fell across the country last year, school districts like the one in Lansing, Mich., Are under pressure to get students enrolled and keep them engaged while budget issues arise. Photo: Bart Thomas

“I just read what the teacher says to read,” Jordan said.

Mrs. Layne saw earlier this school year how distance learning had dampened the growth of her students. One day she asked the children to write something. Shortly after, she heard a sync of chimes going around the room.

“What are you doing?” asked Mrs. Layne, looking confused around the room.

The students replied, “We are writing our answers.” The students had turned on microphones to speak to their iPads, who then wrote the text next to them – something they routinely did during distance learning last year.

“I’m like …” Take the pencil, “Mrs. Layne remembered in astonishment.

Jordan was one of the students who often used the microphone to “write” his answers during online school and said it was easier because he did not know how to spell some words.

This year, he had to miss school for two weeks because he was exposed to a friend who tested positive for Covid-19 and had to be quarantined. Both he and Mrs. Layne are unsure of what happened during that break, but when he returned to school, he stopped behaving incorrectly and throwing tantrums. During a lesson recently, when he was surprised at how he wrote an answer, Mrs. Layne coached him through it as he slowly wrote down each word. He confessed that he is not good at writing big Ds.

“He still doesn’t like it, but he’s trying now, and that’s all I can ask for,” she said.

Fourth graders Priscilla Padilla and Jordan Lopez in math class in Seville East.

Progress has generally been slow in Mrs Layne’s class, but clear. Ms. Layne said that at the beginning of the year, many of her fourth-graders wrote their numbers backwards. Now only two students do. When she asked the children to spell the words of a syllable, she noticed many inserted random vowels.

After weeks of daily repetition with the same 30 words or so, there are fewer guesses. They can distinguish the words “black” and “back” and “away” and “always”. But a couple still say “at-ee” when they see the flash card that says “ate”.


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Priscilla Padilla, 9, said she thought she was a decent reader until she realized she was put in the group of kids who were testing on third-grade curriculum to work on building their vocabulary. She wanted to be with the eight classmates in fourth grade who got to read “Bridge to Terabithia,” a novel because the diagnostic test showed they were skilled readers.

Online learning was tough for her last year because the computer screen often froze in the middle of the class and she had trouble focusing, she said. She shares a bedroom with three of her sisters, and her parents come home at irregular times because of their work. Her father is a furniture mover and her mother cleans houses. She said she has started reading 30 minutes a day at home, as recommended by Mrs. Layne, so she can improve enough to move up in the reading skills group reading novels.

“I do it because I want to go over there, just so I can be smarter than probably other people,” Priscilla said. “I’m a little upset I’m not there.”

She said she wants to go to college and possibly become an art teacher and does not want her reading ability to hold her back.

“It’s important to read because (if you can’t read well), as you get older, you’re probably going to get stuck,” she said.

Write to Yoree Koh at yoree.koh@wsj.com

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