Why reading in times of crisis preserves learning
By Wendy Smith
91% of the world’s student population has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is a staggering percentage. As of today, some students have lost two and a half months of instructional time. Others are participating in “virtual classrooms” of varying quality and with limited resources. Many have no access to instruction at all.
Having worked for decades in education in emergencies, I am familiar with disrupted educational systems: school closures, teachers coping under extreme and uncertain circumstances, and whole education systems being turned on their heads to respond to threats posed by armed conflict, natural disaster, or now, a pandemic.
Social distancing is challenging traditional practices for how to respond to learning during a crisis.
International standards for education in emergencies were first developed almost two decades ago. While those standards guide practitioners in this crisis, a key difference today is that children and teachers are being kept apart.
Education systems and organizations are rapidly developing plans for the continuation of education during this period of necessary isolation. But reaching children and enabling continued learning quickly requires a virtual transformation of traditional teaching and learning practices.
The need to keep children learning during this crisis is critical.
Research tells us that when education is interrupted not only does learning stop but students also begin to lose hard-earned skills acquired when in school. Estimates of “summer learning loss” in the United States show that students lose the equivalent of one month of academic year learning during summer break. This loss increases as children move up in age and grade. The loss is also greater for children in poverty.*
A variety of actors across all sectors is needed to collaborate in supporting schools and bringing new modalities of learning into action. It requires time to build or adopt a new or modified curriculum while students have more limited instructional time or their learning is largely self-directed.
New technologies or old ones such as radio or television all need to be leveraged to facilitate contact with families in diverse settings and deliver instructional content.
But how ready are teachers and parents to support learning while social distancing?
Teachers and parents need time to adapt to effectively support students’ learning – whether it be through direct instruction or guidance for self-directed learning.
With the right tools and support, reading books can be an effective way to support children.
Reading to children and ensuring that children continue to read during this crisis may sound like an overly simple solution, but it would be an error to think so. The science of reading reminds us that when children read or are read to frequently, children continue learning and preserve skills learned prior to the crisis.
The benefits of reading are numerous:
Reading influences children’s vocabulary and language development. Vocabulary development by age 3 has been found to predict reading achievement by third grade. Vocabulary development comes from rich interaction between children and their parents or caregivers. Dialogic reading is key and parents who read, tell stories, or sing songs tend to develop larger vocabularies and become better readers.** While overwhelming evidence exists from child development, the reaped benefits of frequent reading continues throughout primary schools.
Reading is the foundation for future learning. Low achievement in reading in early primary grades has important long-term consequences. These consequences touch all aspects of life including earning potential, competitiveness, and productivity. How a child is reading by third grade is a strong predictor of future academic success and achievement later in high school.*** As children grow, they are often read to less in both the home and classroom. This is a missed opportunity for growth as vocabulary used in books often surpasses vocabulary used in everyday conversation.
Access to books is the first gateway to reading.
Our Keep Children Reading initiative is rooted in both the evidence and experience that educational technology can play a key role in shaping learning during this crisis.
Mobile phone access is a lifeline during school closures and can contribute to a more levelled playing field. Digital books delivered on these devices can fill the instructional void many teachers and parents struggle to fill in this time of transition to distance learning.
As part of its Keep Children Reading initiative, Worldreader has made thousands of free books available – including books about the coronavirus – to readers in the Global South via the new BookSmart app for children and the Worldreader app for older students and young adults. The books are culturally relevant, age-appropriate, and selected to support reading across a variety of genres.
Parents from all socio-economic backgrounds are already reading or storytelling with their children using mobile technology.
In India, the Read to Kids mobile reading program reached more than 203,000 families in 177 low-income areas in less than a year and established a practice of reading in households that previously had few to no children’s books. Today, in partnership with the National Independent School Alliance in India (NISA), Worldreader is supporting schools with digital content to reach teachers and families in search of books.
A similar program in Jordan supported digital reading to refugee mothers concerned with their children’s reduced instructional time and saw 50,000 households downloading the Tuta Tuta collection of Arabic storybooks.
In April 2020, the Ministry of Education in Peru developed a platform called, Aprendo en Casa (I learn at home) and Worldreader’s digital content is being promoted to parents and teachers as a resource they can easily use – the 150 stories are aligned to the P1-P4 curriculum and competencies in language and communication.
It requires a collective effort.
There is a shared understanding that reading to children can fill both a critical gap in the short term (while new systems are being built) but also keep a child’s cognitive foundation strong for continued learning after the crisis. Supporting parents, caregivers, and teachers with simple scalable tools like digital books, accessible for free on their mobile devices, is a first important step.
Partnerships with telecommunications companies, ministries, and civil society organizations must follow because now, more than ever, reading can save minds. Collaboration and investment are necessary in the short-term to get families reading during this crisis, but also to address education equity in the months and years to come.
Learn more about Keep Children Reading and how you can help.
*Cooper, H., et al (1996) The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research 66(3): 227-268. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/00346543066003227
**49 Brooks-Gunn, J., and Markman, L.B. (Spring 2005). “The Contributions of Parenting to Ethnic and Racial Gaps in School Readiness.” The Future of Children, 15(1)
*** Chang, H., and Romero, M. (2008). Present, Engaged, and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation and New York, NY: National Center for Children in Poverty. Available at www.aecf.org/~/media/PublicationFiles/CAreport3text.pdf.