By Ernest Gurulé
For a young mind, there is no greater gift than that of literacy. It is a gift that allows one to explore places, things, or ideas anywhere without even leaving your chair. It allows travel to another continent or to a distant spot in a boundless universe.
Literacy is a ticket whose expiration date is a lifetime and one that can be passed on endlessly. But COVID-19, a microscopic bug that created a new normal in every time zone, also affixed a form of intellectual handcuffs on many young minds.
In Colorado and every state, the pandemic created chaos. The virus closed schools and forced educators to scramble and create whole new approaches to teaching. Now, nearly three years since the first cases of coronavirus, we are seeing the intellectual impact it had on learning.
Data from the Colorado Department of Education showed a mixed performance for state third-graders in literacy testing in 2022. Only 41% tested at or above their grade level. The exam tests students’ reading and writing skills. The result was close to the same as the 2019 test outcomes. However, grades four through eight saw declines in proficiency between half a percent to nearly 5%.
But it could have been worse, say educators, since the virus forced school shutdowns, reopening starts and stops, and virtual learning in which some students dealt with a panoply of challenges, everything from poor or no internet connectivity, parents who could not be at home to ensure their children were in class, or, in other cases, parents who were simply not involved.
“I did not anticipate this,” said Samantha Hakes, a former Denver classroom teacher and now a literacy interventionist.
Hakes now works with sixth- and seventh-grade students, some of whom are reading several levels below their current grade. She is teaching what she calls “foundational reading skills,” and doing it through phonics.
“In kindergarten, you’re hearing your letters and the sounds they make. When you go into first grade, you learn letter combinations, what we call high frequency words,” she said. “By the end of first grade you’re reading books with predictable patterns.”
Hakes understands the challenge that she and others are facing in moving closer to desired levels.
“I think the first word that comes to mind is urgency,” she said.
That means examining the curriculum that had been in place and determining where it worked and where it can be improved. The goal right now, said Hakes, is to do whatever it takes to bring student reading skills up to or close to where they should be at this stage of their education. She remains optimistic that her approach will pay off, but also realistic that not all students will be brought along.
“My job as a teacher is to ensure that I’m providing the best education I can,” she said. Hakes was an elementary school teacher who benefitted from a discipline of teaching literacy. “Some teachers may not have the background on reading development that they need to succeed.”
The decline in student reading skills during the pandemic neither shocked nor surprised Dr. Alfred Tatum, the provost of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s School of Education. The Chicago native and former classroom teacher is also a strong proponent of using phonics for building a young person’s literacy foundation.
“We need to go back to the science of reading.” An essential first step, he said, is competent teachers. “You have to become smart about teaching reading.”
Tatum is no newcomer to the challenge of elevating the reading skills of students. During his time at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Tatum hosted the African American Male Summer Literacy Institute, a program designed to identify and prepare the next generation of Black writers. He currently serves as president-elect of the Literacy Research Association, an organization that inculcates “lifespan literacies in a multicultural and multilingual world.” He is also the author of three books.
Tatum said he has seen far too many teachers fail young people because they have focused on “growth and not attainment.”
“I’m not so concerned about reading growth because I know it will inherently leave a student behind,” he said.
COVID-19 did its part in eroding one of life’s most basic tools in literacy. But Tatum fiercely believes that the effects of the pandemic on students are not permanent.
“When students suffer from literacy,” he said, “it can shape a deleterious outcome. My whole goal is to use reading and writing to destroy everything that goes against a student’s humanity. Reading and writing are tools of protection.”