Missed opportunities to make up for missed opportunities

On a recent morning, 10 fourth-graders huddled in a circle on the floor over magnetic boards, moving lettered tiles to spell out the one-syllable words their teacher, Katerah Layne, called out.

“Rub” said Ms. Layne. As the students shuffled their tiles, a couple confused the letters “b” and “d.”

“It’s OK to get confused,” Ms. Layne reassured the students.

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

From a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Due in part to pandemic-related disruptions, half of Ms. Layne’s 25 students tested at kindergarten to first-grade reading levels. They’re in 4th grade.

But it’s hard to see how the pandemic by itself could have wreaked this much havoc on reading skills. As the article notes:

The district has faced a growing literacy problem over the past 15 years. But the pandemic has turned it into a crisis: A test administered this month to gauge how many students met state grade-level standards revealed that of the 422 second- through fourth-graders at Sevilla East, 58% were determined to be minimally proficient in their grade-level standards for English Language Arts—the lowest rank.

One clue about what else might be going on can be found in the above lesson–which is part of a concerted effort to remediate the students’ reading deficits. “Rub” followed immediately by “fish”? This does not smell like systematic phonics: the kind that has the best track record of getting struggling students up to speed. The students need “rub”, “cub”, “dub”, “sub”, and “tub”, presented in sequence. Those who are confusing “b” and “d” also need “dub” and “bud”; “dab” and “bad”; and “bid” and “dib”. Someone needs to drill them until they all achieve accuracy and fluency.

On top of all this, however, the pandemic clearly did wreak some lasting havoc. And it wasn’t just in terms of the problems, well known to us all, of computer connectivity, Zoom limitations, and student engagement. The distance learning also, apparently, fostered alarming new habits. Shortly after Ms. Layne asked the children to do some writing

she heard a synchrony of chimes go off around the room.

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

The students responded: “We’re writing our answer.” The students had turned on microphones to speak into their iPads, which then typed out the text for them—something they routinely did during remote learning last year.

One student explained that this was easier because he didn’t know how to spell some words, and because he wasn’t good at writing capital Ds. Nor is he alone in his writing difficulties:

Ms. Layne said that at the beginning of the year many of her fourth-grade students were writing their numbers backward. Now, just two students do. When she asked the children to spell out the one-syllable words she noticed many inserted random vowels.

After weeks of daily repetition with the same 30 or so words, 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 flashcard that says “ate.”

“ate”, “date”, “mate”, “rate”, “late”…. As in, it’s never too late for systematic phonics. Even–or, rather, especially–for struggling 4th graders like these.

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