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Maintaining School-Age Children’s Reading Levels During Covid-19

Amid the global pandemic we are battling, we see signs of a “new normal”everywhere. Wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and ubiquitous hand sanitizer stations have kept our attention frozen on health issues. While our sights are locked on to Covid-19, left largely undetected is another“Health” issue that perhaps may be more insidious than Covid-19-it’s the precipitous decline in the reading levels of school age children from first grade through high school.

Hiding in plain sight, our children’s reading levels have taken a menacing nose dive since March, 2020 when schooling was interrupted. Teachers’ cries to parents to step-in and help are now echoing in homes across the nation.

Learning Sciences International(October, 2020), a multidisciplinary team of educational researchers, has predicted severe student learning losses and gaps in reading achievement because of the COVID-19 school closures. They also reported that the quality of remote instruction has varied widely and often inequitably.

A large, and growing number, of teachers are on the record proffering that teaching reading virtually is not nearly as effective as teaching reading face-to-face. Moreover, they say when schools shut down in March many students sadly shut down their volume of reading.

Just as a muscle atrophies when it goes unused, reading levels for many students withered away in the wake of school closures this year and aftereffects that followed this year when schools had to pivoted to teach virtually. Teachers were handcuffed to teach reading well as they struggled and clawed their way through learning how to teach virtually.

Maintaining reading levels is be a bit like dieting-if you stop, progress is hindered as well. Jennie Chall’s breakthrough research (1983) known as “The Summer Reading Slump” showed that reading levels are undercut when the volume of reading stops or is significantly reduced during the summer.

The good news is that nearly forty years a “therapeutic” to get out of this mess and get reading levels back to where they should be was found. The “therapeutic” needed to raise reading levels is reading aloud to children of all ages including high school students.

Compelling evidence for the power of reading aloud to children  was documented in Becoming a Nation of Readers, a 268 page report by the Commission on Reading, funded by the U.S.Department of Education.

The Commission’s findings show that” the single most important activity to accelerate student reading performance was reading aloud to children.” Findings showed that “reading aloud to children was more important and effective than worksheets, homework, book reports and flash cards.”


Why is reading aloud so effective?

To be a strong reader, the key lies in having a vast store of word knowledge. Knowing words is the basis for learning, and the gateway for learning how to think.

Children learn words by seeing, hearing, and using them.

A robust vocabulary has been shown to correlate highly with proficient reading. Reading picture books aloud to children is one of the best practices to expose children to many new words not often heard in everyday talk.

To further understand the significance of  building vocabulary through reading picture books aloud, consider what sociologist have coined the Basic and Common Lexicon. The Basic Lexicon consists of five thousand words that make up 83 percent of the words in everyday conversation. Another five thousand words are used less often in conversation.Together these ten thousand words are called the Common Lexicon. Beyond the ten thousand words are critical words needed for skilled reading. These words are commonly referred to as “rare words.”

Picture books that appear to be simple contain three times as many rare words per thousand as conversations between parent and child. Words such as perched, exhausted, terminal, bellowing, mischief, gnashed, morals, scruples, compunctions, ancient, and untenable are a few examples of rare words that I read to elementary students last month when modeling read aloud techniques for teachers. Knowing these more sophisticated and literate words helps build the reading backbone that separates strong readers from less experienced readers.

Parents often tell me that they get frustrated when their young children keep asking them to read the same book again and again. Repetition and use of words is how we learn new words. Repetitive readings of a text works like a GPS that guides and keeps children on the path to vocabulary growth.

Moreover, research shows that when the same book is read repeatedly children retain the meaning of a new word more than children who heard different books read to them that contained the same word. Accordingly, repeated readings of fewer books are better than reading many books infrequently.

Parents of Texas students know that having a powerful vocabulary has a huge payout when students take the STAAR Reading Test. Each year the test contains an enormous number of rare words. I have been tracking the STAAR test since it became the state’s high stakes reading measure. My findings show that every year the third grade STAAR Reading Test contains more than 200 rare words. It’s no surprise that many students fail the test because of the large number of rare words and the unfamiliar language structures and topics.

As a result, the professional development training that I offer includes lists of the rare words found in the STAAR Reading Test. The list is accompanied with suggestions for how to teach these words to students so that they stick.The results have been transformative in some schools. Two of the three low performing schools that I provided services to in 2017/2018 received commendations for reading growth from the Texas Education Agency. Teachers in those schools attributed the results, in part, to the more robust academic vocabulary the students had developed. Results for 2019 are, regrettably, not available because the STAAR test was not administered. I am confident, however, that the schools I worked with would have shown strong results on the test.

My research, and the research of other reading researchers, revealed two factors that produce higher achievement in reading when:

  • Teachers read aloud and think aloud as they demonstrate the thinking processes needed to be a strategic reader
  • The amount of time students read independently and apply the thinking processes they observed during the read-aloud/think-aloud

Interactive read alouds, filled with talk and thinking, in many ways, is like a magic carpet ride. When parents read aloud to their children, they offer them new ways of thinking that spark new ideas, expand horizons, and enable young readers to learn about new things and more about things they already something about.

The goal for reading aloud to children is for them to see the reading behaviors of  proficient readers. Readers reach the “heart” of the story by exploring the “big ideas” and making inferences about what the writer is exploring through the vehicle of the story.

How important is it to infer? The ability to think and infer proved to be the single most important variable that separated college students who needed remedial reading courses from those students who didn’t according to the researchers at the College Admission Test(ACT).

My work in classrooms with children has taught me that the secret to growing strong readers is helping them grasp the mind-work of reading by orchestrating scaffolded scenarios in which they learn how they can actively construct meaning. Reading aloud to children interactively teaches them To Know, and Know How They Know.


Important Dos and Don’ts of Reading Aloud to School Age Children

(There are various read aloud methods. I suggest that you consider making the read-aloud interactive by thinking aloud when important details are noticed to demonstrate the thinking processes needed for meaning making. See the suggestions for interactive read aloud for narrative texts below.)

As you read aloud narrative text make the experience interactive by…

  • Scheduling a time and place where and when you will read aloud with your child.
  • Make read aloud a routine that you follow regularly.
  • Always say the name of the book.
  • Discuss the illustrations.
  • Vary the read-aloud by inviting the child to read the story together with, reading it to you, or by conducting an interactive read aloud.
  • Before beginning to read a narrative text, think aloud about how fiction writers purposely include certain types of details/clues to” show not tell.”
  • The important clues that authors weave into fictional texts are how the character acts, feels, thinks, changes and interacts with other characters. Hidden behind these clues are character traits, concepts, and ideas that should be talked about and explored.
  • There is no specific sequence to NOTICING clues that the author plants in the text, but I suggest that you begin with characters actions. Say something like, “ I noticed that the character is …”(name the action). Then share your thinking.Think aloud by asking yourself questions such as, ”Why is the character acting that way?
  • After NOTICING several character actions invite children to help you find other character actions.
  • When children demonstrate they have begun more able to notice character actions without prompting, fold-in the other types of clues the author has embedded in the text by thinking aloud. Say something like “I wonder why the character feels that way?” Or, “The author is showing me the character thoughts. This is important and I need to think about that.”
  • With very young readers it is especially important to talk about what the child is interested in, not what you think is interesting. Following the child’s interests is know as “Attentional Following” that has been shown to develop vocabulary. “Attentional Shifting” is when parents directed the child noticing and is less effective for engagement and vocabulary growth.


(Dr. Campanaro is an author, researcher, and staff developer. He was an adjunct professor of reading at Texas A&M University-Commerce and nationally known speaker at professional conferences before moving to Houston. Presently  he is the founder and President of The Literacy Group, a staff development firm, based in Houston that provides professional development training in literacy to Houston area schools. He also provides private tutoring to children of all ages. This article focused on reading aloud narrative text to school age students; however, Dr. Campanaro welcomes your questions about the reading process and reading aloud to toddlers, preschools, and for nonfiction text.

Dr. Campanaro’s email is mario1206@att.net)

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