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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

If You Want Higher Reading Achievement, You’re Going to Have to Deal with the COVID Aftermath

Teacher question

I’m a fourth-grade teacher. This year, because of the COVID shutdowns, I’m seeing more students than ever before who don’t know how to decode. I don’t see how I can teach them what I have in previous years, and I don’t have the ability to deal with the decoding problems. Our district is making a long needed serious effort to upgrade to phonics in our K-1 classrooms, but my students won’t benefit from that. What can I do?

Shanahan’s response

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing these kinds of complaints from across the country. Third and fourth grade teachers wanting to know what to do with their students who have serious gaps in decoding ability. Some tell me that it is a new problem for them, others say it has just gotten worse recently.

That may be surprising given the big emphasis these days on “science of reading” and the response of many states, districts, and schools to improve their programming for K-2 instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics.

It appears that this problem is part of the backwash from our COVID shutdown tragedy – and it is not the only ongoing disruption that pandemic has wreaked on our children’s education. I’ll address your question, and then want to talk about another COVID concern that I think deserves greater attention.

Primary grade kids missed out on a lot of teaching in the teeth of the pandemic. Some managed to parlay their shortened Zoom lessons and mom and dad’s kitchen table efforts into adequate and appropriate decoding ability. Hooray!

But, sadly, for too many others — and this appears to vary by locale — things haven’t worked so well. This school year they entered third and fourth grade at lower levels of reading ability than their teachers have witnessed previously.

Apparently, many schools started the 2022-2023 school year with the idea that things were back to normal. They were for the most part, for our young’uns entering our K-2 classrooms. Those kids may have been behind in these foundational skills, but their teachers usually have had the training, materials availability, and Tier 2 back up support needed to address those gaps.

Unfortunately, often those upper grade teachers have not received similar support. Under normal circumstance, that has been okay for most kids. But these are far from normal circumstances.

Too many kids in the upper grades missed out on the full regimen of decoding instruction usually available in the primary grades. They now find themselves in classrooms unlikely to fill those gaps. Given the ETS research on decoding thresholds and later literacy success, this is potentially a big, and perhaps, long term problem (Wang, Sabatini, O’Reilly, & Weeks, 2019).

It is up to educators to try to minimize the difficulty. Efforts should be made to evaluate the decoding status of kids in grades 3-5 and then fitting instructional responses need to be made.

If the numbers and percentages of decoding laggards are high, then explicit decoding instruction – at the appropriate levels, levels usually addressed in the earlier grade – should temporarily become a part of the upper grade Tier 1 curriculum. I know this will tick off my friends who worry about phonics taking over the world like a Dungeons and Dragons monster, but that’s the reason for the assessments — so that kids who’ve mastered those skills already can proceed as usual.

It is also important to remember that this adjustment is for a year or two – just long enough to recover from the heartrending loss of education these youngsters have suffered.

If — fingers crossed — the numbers are a bit worse than usual, but far from universal, then it would be best to clean up the mess through a stronger Tier 2 effort. No reason to disrupt the regular upper grade curriculum for small handfuls of additional needy students.

What is clear from the teachers I’ve been hearing from is that in too many places these kids really are slipping through the cracks, and this should not be happening. These teachers are frustrated by what they are confronting but they are uncertain how best to respond.

Remember, these are not the teachers to whom professional development aimed at foundational skills has been provided. Nor are they the teachers who have been assigned curriculum materials aimed at basic decoding skills. But what has been appropriate in the past, doesn’t appear to be sufficient for our current situation.

Someone in each school or district needs to assess the problem, determine its extent, and then provide a sound response to the fourth and fifth graders for the upcoming 2023-2024 school year.

The scary part of this is that we don’t have a lot of models of high quality, successful upper grade phonics instructional efforts. However, those ETS data suggest that if kids don’t reach threshold levels of decoding, then they don’t improve in reading in the middle and high school years — no matter what we try. This is not just something we should let pass by; we need to get on this before these kids leave the elementary grades.

Additionally, there is another COVID education problem lurking in the shadows.

Over the past several weeks, news reports have begun to detail some of the most serious wreckage of the pandemic. Although no national statistics are available that I’m aware of, it is evident that school enrollments are seriously down. Districts across the country, large and small, are reporting markedly higher chronic absence and lower daily attendance than usual.

U.S. schools in the 2010s were providing teaching to the largest numbers and largest percentages of students in our nation’s history. It took more than a century of effort, since education became compulsory in all our states, to accomplish that. There is no question that a big part of the reading achievement gains that we experienced from 1880-1970 were due to more kids spending more time at school.

Those attendance increases flattened out in the 1970s — as we digested Brown v. Board of Education — right about the time that educational achievement stopped increasing much in the U.S.

I suspect reversals in those enrollment and attendance figures will mean lower reading achievement nationwide for the foreseeable future. This is one that the schools can’t handle on their own. But it is one that needs to be handled.

States should assist their local districts in securing sufficient transportation so kids can get to school.

Media could help a lot by stressing to parents the importance of school attendance for their children.

Educators should think hard about how we can best reintroduce our schools to our communities, so parents feel that it is safe for their kids to be at school and understand better the need for vigilance in getting their kids to school every day.

Politicians, media, and school boards should make efforts to minimize the controversies that swirl around their local schools rather than ramping up nut-bag complaints that in the past would have been dealt with expeditiously and quietly. No one wants to send their kids into a hotbed of antagonism and animosity. 

Recently, I posted a blog that emphasized the importance of amount of instruction and curricula focused on those things that students need to learn to become successful readers (including decoding). There should be no need to retrace that ground here.

However, COVID, the greatest public health threat of our lifetime (with more than 7 million deaths worldwide and counting) has undermined the amount of teaching our kids get and has managed to prevent some kids from fully experiencing key parts of the reading curriculum. Sadly, COVID may turn out to be the biggest threat to public education of our lifetime as well. But that is up to us.


Wang, Z., Sabatini, J., O’Reilly, T., & Weeks, J. (2019). Decoding and reading comprehension: A test of the decoding threshold hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 387–401. (opens in a new window)

Selected comments

Comment from Mark

Regarding grades 4 on up Tier 2 instruction. For those students demonstrating decoding and encoding deficiencies on a diagnostic, is there any research that gives guidance on gap filling? In other words, if a student does not know the /oo/ as in wood diphthong, is it best to remediate this deficiency in isolation or in the context of all diphthongs?

Response from Shanahan


I’m aware of no research on that. To me it would make sense to fill the gap and teach the pattern that you are aware the student doesn’t know. That doesn’t keep you from addressing other needs, but this is a need that you would be aware of, so why not deal with it now instead of waiting and perhaps never getting to it?

Comment from Andrew

I just agree with Tim on the current state of reading skill — especially in grades 3-5. But don’t forget about vocabulary needs. Good decoding but inadequate vocabulary leaves students semi-illiterate.

Response from Shanahan


There is no question that there could be other educational damage from the shutdowns. The reason for focusing on the decoding one is because of the need for kids to meet threshold levels and the lack of preparation for teachers to teach those skills at those grades. I would hope that the typical 4th grade (and up) teacher has some idea how to teach vocabulary (and other skills that one would usually be concerned about in their grade levels).

Comment from Paul

Thanks again Tim for the expose especially addressing the late elementary issue(s) of teaching reading, in general and as related to the pandemic. It’s and interesting dejavu going back to1997 where a district wide longitudinal initialtive was enacted to address the needs of all 3–5 grade students in all tiers. The findings were published in the AERJ. See: Sadoski, M. & Willson, V. (2006). Effects of theoretically based large-scale reading intervention in a multicultural urban school district. American Educational Research Journal, 43(1), 137-154. doi:10.3102%2F00028312043001137. In sum …  

Based on the mandates of the Colorado Department of Education Pueblo School District 60 (PSD60), a heavily minority urban district with mostly Title I schools implemented a theoretically based comprehensive professional development process designed to improve Colorado Student Assessment Program reading scores. In this study, the authors examined achievement in Grades 3–5 during the years 1998–2003. PSD60 schools and schools statewide were compared through a series of repeated measures analysis of covariance controlling for school size, percentage of minority students enrolled, socioeconomic status, and the amount of time a school was included in the intervention. Statistically significant and increasing gains favoring the reading intervention, aggressively supported by district leadership were found both overall and in analyses of Title 1 schools. As an example, in the initial schools third grade reading went from 12 percent proficient in reading on the state mandated test to 63, to 74, to 83% proficient over the next four years with the rest of the Title I elementary schools following suit. At the policy level one of the takeaways was that this high poverty, high minority district, over time, went from the bottom of the state in reading to exceeding the state average in reading based on the state mandated reading test for that time period.  

What accounted for the success? Right, an evidence-based comprehensive reading initiative program and plan were necessary, that would not have been worth a cup of coffee at Denny’s without the leadership of all administrative offices of the district, including the superintendent, the principals, and the school board. Let’s be clear about what it is going to take to have any impact on addressing the reading (let’s call it learning) crisis we are in. We can’t be naive about what it is going to take to address the learning loss for our children.

Comment from CD

As an intervention teacher, I have seen the effects of Covid on elementary age students. In addition to decoding and encoding gaps, many struggle with comprehension. Any suggestions on how to address reading comprehension weakness in grades 3-5? (I am an intervention teacher, grades K-5).

Response from Shanahan


Indeed, there are many pieces on this website about addressing reading comprehension instruction. Though kids may be lagging more in comprehension than usual because of COVID, I see no reason why upper grade teachers cannot address those needs by aggressively doing things and using curriculum that they already have access to. The reason for highlighting phonics is because of their lack of preparation. I suggest you go through the blogs, publications, and resources for lots of guidance on comprehension instruction.

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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).