The bright orange rear end of a school bus is photographed looking upward to ward an azure blue sky.
School buses are seen in the parking lot of a hockey arena in Dartmouth on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. — Photo: Zane Woodford

The Nova Scotia Department of Education confirms an increasing number of children in early elementary school (Primary to Grade 4) are struggling to meet expectations when it comes to reading. 

This is not the fault of students or teachers or families. It’s almost to be expected considering the school time children have missed over the past two years. COVID restrictions and school closures have moved learning online to their homes three separate times. 

In the province’s largest school region, which includes Halifax, students have missed 35 days (or seven weeks) of classroom instruction due to the pandemic. For elementary school children, five hours of daily instruction at school was replaced by two hours of online learning for 72 days (14 weeks) over the past two years. 

Students attending schools closed by an outbreak would have missed even more time, but these general numbers were supplied by the Halifax Regional Education Centre after the Department of Education said information about “days lost” was collected by regions and not by the province.

While there is consensus among teachers, parents, and bureaucrats that the pandemic has made learning more difficult for everyone, it may be some time before we know to what extent COVID has affected reading progress among our youngest children. 

On December 30, 2021, the Halifax Examiner’s Tim Bousquet asked Education Minister Becky Druhan to comment on how disruptions in normal classroom instruction were affecting children in Grades 1 and 2, who might reasonably be expected to be failing to meet certain reading benchmarks under pandemic conditions. Minister Druhan appeared to deny that was so when she answered: 

So the teachers and educators have done an amazing job at adapting their learning approaches and teaching approaches to address the time away from school that students have experienced and we haven’t seen the kind of significant issues that you are describing. We’ve seen students actually do quite well through the course of this based on those targeted approaches to learning.

Druhan’s answer seems to be contradicted by information provided by the Department of Education last week. Going back to March 2020, when school disruptions began, the Halifax Examiner asked for information about the reading progress (or lack of it) made by children in early Elementary. 

The department responded by providing report card data from Halifax, the largest school region with 34,000 students in Primary-Grade 4. Report cards use words such as “developing as expected” and “needs more support” to tell students and parents how they are progressing and if they are meeting certain benchmarks. 

Over the past three school years, the Halifax region has seen a 5.5% decline in the number of students whose reading is “developing as expected” and a corresponding 5.5% increase in the number of kids who “need more support.” 

There is also a 5% decline in the number of students in Grades 1-2 meeting expectations when it comes to writing and a 5% increase in those who need more help. 

Below is the information sent by the Department of Education:

Grade 1-4 findings: 34,000 students in HRM from report cards 2019, 2020, 2021

  • Speaking marks on average have remained relatively consistent over the last three years
  • Reading marks on average have experienced a slight reduction in the number of students who are “Developing as Expected” and “Well Developed” by 5.5% and a matching increase in “Needs Development”
  • Writing marks on average have experienced a slight reduction in the number of students who are “Developing as Expected” and “Well Developed” by 5.0% (in grades 1-2 only) and a matching increase in “Needs Development”

These results have prompted the Education Department to ask elementary school teachers to do more frequent reading assessments — every month instead of at the end of each term — so struggling readers can be identified sooner and receive more supports.

“The difference is we are looking at focussing on P-2 literacy as a priority,” said Cindy Astephen, the facilitator for literacy implementation at the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE). “Literacy was always a goal, but the Regional Center and the Education Department have made it a priority. We are focussing our efforts to make sure these kids are reading and writing and that’s why we are tracking the progress very closely.” 

In Grade 1, those supports include a program called Reading Recovery, in which kids are pulled out of class and read one-on-one with a reading coach for 20 weeks. In Grades 2-3, there are resource teachers, early literacy specialists, and English-as-an-additional-language teachers who read with small groups of two to three students several times a week. 

Astephen, who worked as an elementary school teacher and a principal for 25 years before taking this new job a few months ago, cautioned parents (and reporters) about getting too upset about kids not meeting certain outcomes or benchmarks. 

“We need to have benchmarks, so we have a target,” she said. “It’s similar to knowing when kids start to walk or to talk — typically there is a range among those milestones. It’s the same with reading and writing. So if we say on this date they need to be at this level, that’s not fair to kids, because that’s not how kids learn or grow.” 

Impact of the pandemic

Pandemic disruptions mean the standardized provincial test for reading, normally carried out at the end of Grade 3, has not been given. Report card data the Department of Education provided may not be as objective as results from a tool called the Fountas & Pinnell Reading Assessment Kit; many – but not all – teachers use it to check whether young children understand what they are reading (comprehension) and where they stand with vocabulary development. 

Fountas & Pinnell also provide elementary teachers with books, with the level of difficulty is organized from A-Z. In the past, most kids would feel confident about reading an easy chapter book by the end of Grade 2. 

The Examiner was unable to get any information from the Department of Education or HRCE about what these Fountas & Pinnell reading assessments show. Regional Education Centres receive these data, but Astephen said not all teachers are required to use the assessment tool, and those teachers who do then use the results to inform student report cards. 

Let’s leave that thorny issue there and hear about one mother’s experience with online learning during the past two years.

At-home learning

Sarah White is the mother of two girls, aged 5 and 7, attending Maple Ridge Elementary in Lantz. Both girls are reading at the level their teachers say they should be. But White said it has not been without a lot of stress on her part (she works full-time from home in the communications field) and has heard similar feelings expressed by other young parents.

“It’s challenging to be juggling so much at once, and I think we aren’t used to being more responsible for our child’s education,” said White. “My kids prefer to be taught by somebody else; they don’t want to learn from me. I can’t make them sit down and read or write something they are supposed to do for class.”

For instance, during last week’s period of online learning, Sarah took time off from her job so she could supervise the two hours a day her 5-year-old was spending in front of the computer and another two hours when her 7-year-old was participating in an online classroom situation. 

White said she had no desire to repeat the experience during the First Wave in 2020, when both she and her husband were working from home while trying to look after their then 3-year-old toddler and teach their 5-year-old how to open a PDF to work on a game. 

“That was the worst,” said White. She told me she was pleasantly surprised at how much better the online learning experience was last week for her second child, who entered Primary this year. 

Unlike her older sister’s experience, schools now have a program called RAZZ that makes books available online so kids can read together with their teacher and friends. There’s a wide range of books for kids at every reading level, an online resource that the Department of Education purchased with $1.7 million in pandemic money from Ottawa. White said the online books have helped her previously reluctant reader become a confident one by the middle of Grade 2. 

Teaching through the COVID waves

Any teacher will tell you the pandemic has made learning more difficult. At school, the masks muffle both adult and student voices and make it harder to distinguish the sound of an “s” from the sound of a “f” when sounding out new words. “Jolly Phonics” are a lot less jolly. 

Movement is restricted and kids must spend more time in their seats. 

Online teaching presents even more of a challenge to keep kids engaged and attentive when the teacher is a static image on the screen and disruptions range from barking dogs to the internet going down if too many people in the household are online at once.

“You can’t deny there were challenges, and would I want to do online learning for a long time? Certainly not!” said Astephen. “It’s not a situation I would want to see continue. Kids are meant to be in school with other kids.”

“The cusp of a generational catastrophe”?

In families in which a parent or parents may be struggling to put food on the table, becoming an active participant in online learning may take more than the delivery of a Chrome Book. It takes both time and skill, and that’s why researchers are becoming increasingly concerned about the potential long-term effects of school closures on kids. 

“Children are missing their friends, they are missing school, and they are worrying about their learning and falling behind,” Dr. Shimi Kang told Matt Galloway, the host of CBC Radio’s The Current earlier this month. 

Kang is a child psychiatrist, author, and mother to three children. She said after health care workers, teachers are the second most stressed group of professionals. Despite that observation, Kang said school is the best place to help children who are experiencing anxiety, stress, obesity, and addiction to social media.

“There was a crisis in mental health prior to the pandemic and evidence is mounting the pandemic has made it worse,” said Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa, who was also interviewed on CBC’s The Current. 

“The people most affected by school closures are children from poor families who often don’t eat well, kids with learning disabilities, and those who are racialized,” said Vaillancourt. “Every child advocacy group in the world has said we are on the cusp of a generational catastrophe.”

Those are strong and terrifying words from an expert on youth mental health. They make questions around the aforementioned declines in early literacy pale in comparison, and yet, as the literacy facilitator Cindy Astephen saids, “We know if we intervene early, then we will have fewer kids needing intervention later. We want to reach them before they run into trouble and the gap widens.” 

Just as we don’t know the medical effects from “Long COVID,” we have yet to discover the educational and developmental effects of COVID disruptions on our youngest citizens. 

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Before we jump on the bandwagon of calling for more frequent assessments of very young children’s reading ability, and then for implementing reading programs based on the “science of reading” let’s look at the science of places where they have been doing synthetic phonics for decades. Britain has been pushing synthetic phonics at ever younger ages, and assessing kids constantly, and surprise, surprise, they are now finding that not only has it not increased Britain’s scores on international comparative tests, it is destroying kids’ love of reading. In a letter signed by over 250 academics to the Secretary of Education, a University College of London study is cited as evidence that a new, more balanced approach to reading is needed.
    Small losses in reading scores in very young children during a 3 year pandemic should be the last thing we worry about. Let’s think more about how we are going to go forward making it better in the future – and that includes a balanced approach to reading.

    1. The Science of Reading involves more than just synthetic phonics.
      Early screening in Primary/Grade 1 for dyslexia and reading difficulties is important. Systematic, explicit instruction that integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing is needed for all students, especially the 10-20% of kids in a class with Dyslexia.
      Reading instruction needs to be changed & get rid of ineffective programs like Reading Recovery and Balanced Literacy.

    2. An article about this subject came out today.

      “These claims are concerning because no reading scientist ever would suggest that phonics is all there is to reading. They are also surprising because England’s national curriculum requires schools to teach phonics alongside reading comprehension. The statutory guidance for Year 1 makes reference to developing “pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding” and “listening to and discussing a wide range of poems, stories, and non-fiction”.”

  2. Thanks Jennifer for digging into this. When I read that a facilitator for literacy implementation asks that parents not get too upset should their child not meet certain outcomes- benchmarks, I shudder. Parents are concerned more than upset, and they want to know what action will be taken by the school system to address what are lagging skills or a learning disability in reading or a student who is dyslexic. Parents want to see this turned around, and they want appropriate action to be taken by the educators. Benchmarks not achieved should raise questions and ignoring the situation or minimizing it is not a strategy to be followed.

    There is evidence , other than testimonials, that established where kids were in reading and writing and it was literacy assessments at grades three, six and nine. These assessment results were reported directly to parents in a statement of whether or not your child was meeting or not meeting standards in reading and writing. The education system was supposed to use these assessments to address lagging achievement; the system was to put in place the needed instruction to bring the skill levels of those who did not meet up to the standard expected. This NEVER happened and the Dept. of Education never followed up to make sure that it happened. Reading recovery does not address continued lagging skills and achievement in reading and writing. It is an intensive program, and questionable in its effectiveness, that is used at grade one/two level. Pointing to reading recovery as a measure of how the system is responding meaningfully to lagging performance in reading is off the mark.

    Offering an evidence-based ,proven, structured literacy program and quarterly reporting to parents may be the answer to students not achieving the benchmarks established. Telling parents not to get too upset about their child not reaching certain milestones is going to result and has resulted in students’ needs not being met at all. It has also resulted in detection of lagging achievement being delayed for years. The ‘he or she is a late bloomer’ approach does no one any good. No parent should accept this as a way forward. It is a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach that has doomed many kids to functional illiteracy and to wondering when it is that they will get taught in accordance with needs unmet because the status quo has prevailed yet again.

    The Freeman Panel in October ,2014 identified a seriously flawed inclusion model. In 2018 a new model was adopted and it has not been assessed nor has its application been robustly examined. It is 2022, and as far as we know, properly differentiated, daily, direct instruction may not be occurring at all.
    No,parents SHOULD BE VERY CONCERNED and should NOT accept the view that merely “ensuring” that something is happening to address lagging achievement is actually happening.