Young Children May Have Lost Significant Reading Ability During COVID-19 School Closings

September 17, 2020
Xue Bao (left) and Tiffany Hogan
Xue Bao (left) and Tiffany Hogan

It was late February, a month after the novel coronavirus began sweeping across the world, when Xue Bao, a doctoral research fellow in the MGH Institute’s Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab and the mother of a one-year-old, began wondering how the virus might impact children. 

As COVID-19 worsened and schools began to close, she wanted to know more. “I realized there are so many kids who were going to be staying at home for no-one-knew how long,” said Bao, who’s been researching aspects of children’s reading and literacy since joining SAiL as a PhD candidate in 2019. 

While most casual observers can deduct that such closures might threaten children’s reading abilities, no one had been able to model that impact with any data-backed precision. The only research Bao could find in March contained just commentary, no quantified research. “As a researcher, I said, ‘Oh, that’s something I want to study, and I can probably quantify this problem’,” she remembered.

To put numbers behind just how big a negative impact the interruption of formal education – in person or remote – might have, Bao used the most recent national longitudinal data called ECLS:K-2011, collected by the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education, which details how kindergarteners lose reading abilities over summer breaks. She worked with her husband, Ruixiong Zhang, a research scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Hang Qu, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology who helped with analysis; and Tiffany Hogan, director of the SAiL lab.

This analysis was developed into a paper, “Modeling Reading Ability Gain in Kindergarten Children During COVID-19 School Closures,” which examines how coronavirus-related school closings will affect kindergarten students’ reading abilities. The paper is now published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. With the academic year just beginning, Bao and Hogan hope school administrators can use it to better develop and implement back-to-school plans. 

The paper’s conclusions are grim: kindergarteners are predicted to lose 31% of their reading abilities as a result of school closures from March 16 to September 1, although 42% of those losses could be offset by parents reading to their children daily. 

“During a regular summertime, there are organized activities, the library is open, kids go to camps, and see their friends—all activities that can help mitigate some of these losses,” Bao said. But because of the pandemic, those activities didn’t happen and kids were stuck at home with varying levels of instruction or support from teachers and parents. 

On average, children’s reading abilities grow at a much slower but positive rate during school closures. “The more children are read to, the faster they will retain their reading abilities,” said Bao. “Only our worst-case scenario of not doing anything at home and no book reading showed children’s reading ability will plateau.”

“The take-home for educators is that however kids return to class, they should know their kids lost a lot of reading abilities that they should have learned in the spring,” said Dr. Hogan. “They should also expect that it could be very variable from child to child. They may have one kid who’s lost nothing, and another kid who’s lost 60% to 70%.”

“Educators, schools, and families should know how much kindergartners lose during this time, then make the right plan for these children and adjust their expectations,” said Bao. “Now that we know there are ways to compensate, they should also take action to prevent the loss as much as possible even as kids begin returning to school.”

-    Elaine K. Howley

Reading Loss Research Featured on WCVB-TV

Xue Bao was interviewed on WCVB-TV Channel 5 about the paper she and Dr. Tiffany Hogan co-authored on the potential reading loss of kindergartners due to COVID-19 school closings.