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Fort Vermilion literacy pilot closing the COVID-19 reading gap

The province will roll out the program across the province in September, with $45 million earmarked for up to 16 weeks of intervention given out in small group sessions.
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A reading support and intervention program piloted by University of Alberta professor Dr. George Georgiou in the Fort Vermilion school division is helping to quickly close the reading performance gap for struggling readers. The program will be rolled out across the province in September. UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA/Photo

Young readers across the globe have fallen behind during the COVID-19 pandemic after schools had to be paused and pushed online.

Research from University of Alberta professor Dr. George Georgiou, who specializes in reading challenges in elementary school children and is director of the Reading Research Laboratory, found that young readers, especially kids in Grades 1 and 2, fell behind because they are in the process of learning to read.

“They have not yet become independent readers. The fact that the schools closed has impacted them tremendously,” Georgiou said.

For young readers, it is almost as if the school year didn’t happen for them.

“The schools closing has impacted them tremendously, to the point that the data shows that they are about eight to 12 months behind grade level,” Georgiou said.

In January 2020, Georgiou assessed Grade 1 kids across the province, and one year later those kids are still reading at the same reading level. 

Grades 1, 2, and 3 students were impacted the most by the pandemic, Georgiou said, while kids in Grades 4 onward didn’t lose any reading skills, and in many cases grew to be stronger readers.

“Basically it shows you that when they are left on their own with no interruptions, because they are already independent readers, they kind of continue to grow as readers,” Georgiou said.

But for younger readers who are still learning how to read, the year was tough, Georgiou said

“(When schools closed) they no longer had access to intensive, immediate, structured intervention in schools. That had greater impact on that group of kids,” Georgiou said.

Kids in younger grades who weren’t struggling before COVID-19 continued to advance at a normal pace, but the biggest impact on reading skills was seen in those kids who were struggling with reading before the pandemic.

“Their performance got worse after the schools closed,” Georgiou said.

“If you don't have someone to instruct you how to decode words, then you cannot read on your own. You can imagine it is 10 times harder for the already struggling kids.”

Although many kids have lost reading skills throughout the pandemic year, Georgiou said there is good news, as a reading support and intervention program he piloted in the Fort Vermilion school division is helping to quickly close the reading performance gap for struggling readers.

The provincial government will roll out the program Georgiou has piloted in Fort Vermilion across the province in September to close the literacy gap, with $45 million earmarked for up to 16 weeks of intervention given out in small group sessions.

Georgiou is already working with the St. Albert Catholic School division to help support readers who may have struggled as a result of the pandemic. 

Krimsen Sumners, superintendent for St. Albert Public Schools, said she doesn't think the students in the district struggled as much as those across the province, as they focused heavily on numeracy and literacy through the year, but said in the fall they will be doing assessment work to ensure students are on track. 

"If we've missed the mark, then we will dive in, roll our sleeves up, and we will get things moving forward for our kids," Sumners said. 

Fort Vermilion pilot project

With around 40 per cent of his Grade 1 students reading and stubbornly sitting in the bottom third of the province in reading outcomes, one Alberta superintendent went on the hunt for a way to change the future of his students.

Michael McMann, superintendent for Fort Vermilion School Division, said the reading scores for students in the division were stubbornly low, and he wanted to find a way to improve the outcomes for every student.

“We had a measure we were using … at the time that didn't tell us anything, never moved. It really didn't move in the 12 years that we were doing it,” McMann said.

“So you have a choice to continue to bang your head against the wall and hope to get a different result, knowing full well, that's not how it works.”

McMann said the reading tests, known as Cat-4, were not helping the kids improve their reading and there was no strategic intervention to target where they were struggling.

The superintendent said the outcome was just not acceptable, as 95 per cent of all students are able to learn how to read, and there should be no reason those students who are able to read, don’t learn how.

Three years ago, McMann and the district started searching for support and a different way to test and target struggling students with interventions to help his students.

In that search, McMann connected with Georgiou, and together they started tackling reading in the district.

“We've had compounded issues around literacy and numeracy for the last four years,” McMann said.

The goal for McMann and the district was to find a way to measure a child’s reading and then change the trajectory of that the very next day.

“We know exactly what's wrong and then can we put an intervention in,” McMann said.

The district initially had 50 per cent of Grade 1 students reading below grade level or at risk for not learning how to read at all. Now more than 80 per cent of Grade 1 students are readers.

Since implementing the targeted program steered by Georgiou, one school in the district has moved every single Grade 1 child more than 10 standardized points upward, which is the equivalent of two grade levels.

“For a teacher to move a group of kids more than two grade levels in reading, it's astronomical. That's based on the interventions that we've put in place,” McMann said.

The intervention for each child will be different and personalized, McMann said, with some students only needing a few sessions of targeted support, while others need more support. The assessment test at the beginning of the year targets what area of reading the child is struggling in, and then targets an intervention and program for them for the year. The school tests the child halfway through the year to see if the method is working, and if it isn’t, it allows for the school to pivot to a different intervention. The school tests the student at the end of the year again to assess the progress the little readers have made.

“Some of them are as little as four weeks and some of them are as long as 110 lessons, one hour a day,” McMann said.

So far the program has been in the school district for three years and in that time the community has faced a lot of adversity, which impacted the school year.

In 2018 the community had a small flood, followed by the Chuckegg Creek Fire in 2019, which scorched more than 350,000 hectares of land in northern Alberta. In 2020 Fort Vermillion had a 100-year flood, which led to evacuations and damaged many buildings.

During all three years, school had to be paused or wrapped up early due to the environmental emergencies

Despite it all, McMann said with the help of Georgiou, the students didn’t fall behind in reading and instead advanced their overall reading levels.

Now the district is rolling out the program for Grade 2 and Grade 3 students, and Georgiou is working with schools across the province through a provincially-funded program to help support students to recover literacy losses from the pandemic.

Both McMann and Georgiou said rolling out the program across the province is extremely important, as the outcomes for students who don’t learn how to read are severe.

“If you don't teach a kid how to read by the time they're done Grade 3, it is astronomically harder every year after that,” McMann said

McMann said many students who don’t learn how to read intersect with the justice system later in their lives.

While in school, kids who can’t read are more likely to act out, McMann said.

Reading is the foundation skill to build other academic skills, such as math and numeracy, Georgiou said.

“Problem-solving relies on understanding the problems and reading the problems correctly,” Georgiou said.

If the COVID-19 reading gap isn’t tackled, Georgiou said there will be an over representation of struggling readers in the years to come.

“You will also see a much larger type of problem in mathematics, social sciences, and other fields,” Georgiou said.

“You will start seeing also a higher number of kids that have internalizing and externalizing behaviour problems. In other words, like lower self-esteem, aggression, aggressive behaviour, and these types of things."

These problems can compound through a student’s time at school and lead to higher dropout rates across the province.

“The kids who leave school – the large majority of kids have reading difficulties,” Georgiou said.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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