‘We cannot afford to wait’: Alberta reading expert warns struggling readers falling further behind

Dr. George Georgiou, a professor in the department of Educational Psychology at the University of Alberta, knows teachers and parents are exhausted, but the reading researcher is urging everyone to pay attention to struggling readers — especially those in grades one and two.

Georgiou has been studying standardized test scores of Alberta children — what principals in many schools have been telling him is cause for concern.

“I think the best description would be to say it’s alarming.”

Georgiou, who is also the director of the Reading Research Laboratory, said these are the lowest test scores he’s seen since he started working at the U of A in 2008.

Read more: Alberta government launches new literacy program for students K-3 due to pandemic setbacks

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When students returned to school in the fall, many were six to eight months behind their reading grade level.

That has now stretched to up to a year.

“We have about 35 per cent struggling readers right now,” said Georgiou, “and in many school divisions it’s way higher than that.”

Georgiou stressed by grade three, students need a solid foundation and if there isn’t immediate intervention, “a very large population of kids will be going into grade three, grade four, grade five with reading difficulties, which means the chances to help these kids goes down exponentially.

“We cannot afford to wait.”

Watch: Study finds COVID-19 pandemic put students 6 to 8 months behind

The back and forth to online learning hasn’t helped. The evidence from last year, said Georgiou, showed that students sent home from school in March 2020 were severely impacted in their reading and mathematics, especially those in kindergarten to grade three.

“I have no doubt that the same finding will happen this year. The learning of kids is very predictable, particularly in terms of reading.

“The struggling readers will be falling further behind.”

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Georgiou said those struggling readers need intensive instruction by teachers in the classroom.

The Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation has been ringing the alarm bell too.

Ariel Siller, CEO of CCLF, said “substantial action needs to be taken with kids of all ages to help support reading development.”

She said failure to do that could have significant implications for the health and well-being of Canadians.

“Many provinces are starting to think about what plans need to be in place for the fall to ensure that kids get caught up and those kids who are behind get the attention that they need,” said Siller, “but I think we need to be vigilant to ensure that kids are getting caught up.”

The CCLF website cites a number of research studies that point to Canadian students falling further behind. It said Canada scored 18th in a global ranking of grade four readers and nearly 14 per cent of grade 10 students do not have the baseline level of reading skills needed to navigate our society.

Both Siller and Georgiou said based on years of research, reading difficulties are associated with higher drop-out rates and behavioural problems.

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Siller wants school boards across the country to prioritize reading once students are back in the classroom. She also said it’s paramount that parents do what they can at home to guide children in their early years.

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“That snuggling up and reading with a child is a key component,” Siller said.

“We know kids who are read to daily before the age of five… experience stronger social, emotional skills than children who are read to less frequently.

“So those early times where you’re reading to your child is essential.”

Siller pointed to other “word-rich” activities, like singing and conversation about your surroundings.

Kyla Misenas signed her family up for free classes with the Centre for Family Literacy in Edmonton, Alta. The family programs have included activities that have helped engage her nine- and six-year-old children online.

“To be able to have activities to do as a family that are focused on literacy have been really helpful for our family.”

Misenas said both her children are reading at the appropriate grade level and the structure of the family program helped keep up their skills.

“They’re not able to be in their classroom, their teachers aren’t reading to them, so we’re reading at home.”

The mother of three said with schools and libraries closed, it has not always been easy getting their hands on books. The Centre for Family Literacy helped by sending books to the family for their book club activity and guided her kids to find authors and topics they’re interested in.

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“I think it is so important that by the end of grade three they have those foundational skills,” said Misenas.

“You know, they’re learning to read and then grade four and up they’re more reading to learn.”

The CCLF said as classes wrap up in June, it’s important to keep kids reading in the months ahead.

“Part of that return-to-school strategy,” said Siller, “is spending time at home reading over the summer, enjoying those moments so that way there’s joy in addition to challenge.”

Georgiou also encouraged parents to spend at least 20 minutes per day reading to their children and discussing the story. When their children are reading, listen for fluency and intonation.

He said average or good readers will catch up.

“But the struggling readers,” said Georgiou, “you need someone who is an expert, who has specialized knowledge about how to deal with struggling readers — using the right tools to help these kids.

“If this is not present, these kids will be falling further behind.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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