As schools approach the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic, educators, parents and policymakers in Philadelphia are increasingly concerned about how the youngest students are learning to read. The shift to remote learning has exacerbated existing concerns in the city about early childhood literacy and the long-term effects on achievement.

Teachers and reading specialists report that students who regularly attend their virtual classes are indeed learning – a testament to both the remarkable ways teachers have been able to quickly adapt to their new teaching environment and the resilience of students – but educators fear that their students are not nearly as far along as they would have been in a normal school year.

Literacy has been a longstanding concern in the Philadelphia school district. According to a district report presented at a Board of Education meeting in January, only 32% of third graders read on grade level. As part of its “goals and guardrails” initiative, the school board has taken up early literacy as a particular point of focus, aiming for 62% of students to be proficient in English language arts by 2026. In response to the report, Superintendent William Hite announced that the district would move away from a “balanced literacy” approach, which incorporates elements of whole language instruction, toward a model that is more focused on phonics and phonemic awareness.

Whole language instruction focuses on teaching reading by inferring information about a word from the larger context. Proponents of the “science of reading” point to research studies showing that children need direct instruction, with a particular focus on phonics, to learn how to decode words. Balanced literacy is an attempt to combine the two approaches.

Hite also said teachers need more long-term professional development for reading instruction. This is in line with advocates who argue many elementary teachers also aren’t trained in the science of reading. For them, sustained professional development is necessary so that teachers stay up to date on the research.

Read the full article about addressing early literacy by Melanie Bavaria at Chalkbeat Philadelphia.