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AUSTIN, Texas — Most years, by the third week of first grade, Heather Miller is working with her class on writing the beginning, middle and end of simple words. This year, she had to backtrack — all the way to the letter “H.”

“Do we start at the bottom or do we start at the top?” Miller asked as she stood in front of her class at Doss Elementary.

“Top!” chorused a few voices.

“When I do an H, I do a straight line down, another straight line down and then I cross in the middle,” Miller said, demonstrating on a projector in a front corner of the classroom.

Her 25 students set to work on their own. Some got it right away. One student watched his tablemate before slowly copying down his own H’s. Another tested her own way of writing the letter: one line down, cross in the middle, then another line down. “Your paper is upside down, let’s turn it,” Miller said to a student who was trying to write letters while leaning sideways, almost out of her seat.

A student works on a writing assignment in Heather Miller’s classroom.

In classrooms across the country, the first months of school this fall have laid bare what many in education feared: Students are way behind in skills they should have mastered already.

Children in early elementary school have had their most formative first few years of education disrupted by the pandemic, years when they learn basic math and reading skills and important social-emotional skills, like how to get along with peers and follow routines in a classroom.

While experts say it’s likely these students will catch up in many skills, the stakes are especially high around literacy. Research shows if children are struggling to read at the end of first grade, they are likely to still be struggling as fourth graders. And in many states with third grade reading “gates” in place, students could be at risk of getting held back if they haven’t caught up within a few years.

40 percent — The number of first grade students “well below grade level” in reading in 2020, compared with 27 percent in 2019, according to Amplify Education Inc.

First grade in particular — “the reading year,” as Miller calls it — is pivotal for elementary students, when their literacy skills “really take off.” Kindergarten focuses on easing children from a variety of educational backgrounds — or none at all — into formal schooling. In contrast, first grade concentrates on moving students from pre-reading skills and simple math, like counting, to more complex skills, like reading and writing sentences and adding and subtracting numbers.

By the end of first grade in Texas, students are expected to be able to mentally add or subtract 10 from any given two-digit number, retell stories using key details and write narratives that sequence events. The benchmarks are similar to those used in the more than 40 states that, along with the District of Columbia, adopted the national Common Core standards a decade ago.

Teachers often see a range of literacy skills, and that could be more pronounced this year due to the pandemic

“They really grow as readers in first grade, and writers,” Miller said. “It’s where they build their confidence in their fluency.”

But about half of Miller’s class of first graders at Doss Elementary, a spacious, bright, newly built school in northwest Austin, spent kindergarten online. Some were among the tens of thousands of children who sat out kindergarten entirely last year.

More than a month into this school year, Miller found she was spending extensive time on social lessons she used to teach in kindergarten, like sharing and problem-solving.  She stopped class repeatedly to mediate disagreements. Finally, she resorted to an activity she used to use in kindergarten: role-playing social scenarios, like what to do if someone accidentally trips you.

“My kids are so spread out in their needs … there’s so much to teach, and somehow there’s not enough time.”

Heather Miller, first grade teacher

“So many kids are missing that piece from last year because they were, you know, virtual or on an iPad for most of the time, and they don’t know how to problem-solve with each other,” Miller said. “That’s just caused a lot of disruption during the school day.” 

Her students were also not as independent as they had been in previous years. Used to working on tablets or laptops for much of their day, many of these students were also behind in fine motor skills, struggling to use scissors and still working on correctly writing numbers.

Related: What parents need to know about the research on how kids learn to read

Instead of working on first grade standards, Miller was devoting time on this Friday morning in early September to forming upper- and lowercase letters, a kindergarten standard in Texas and the majority of other states. As students finished practicing the letter H, they moved on to the assignment at the bottom of the page: Draw a picture and write a word describing something that starts with an H.

“H-r-o-s” one student wrote next to a picture of a horse standing on green grass in front of a light blue sky. “H-e-a-r-s” another student wrote next to a picture of a strip of brown hair, floating in the white picture box. “You should draw a face there,” suggested his tablemate, pointing at the blank space under the hair.

Students work on a phonics activity during center time in Heather Miller’s classroom. Credit: Jackie Mader/ The Hechinger Report

Miller’s first graders are a case study in the scale, depth and unevenness of learning loss during the pandemic.  One report by Amplify Education Inc., which creates curriculum, assessment and intervention products, found children in first and second grade experienced dramatic drops in grade level reading scores compared with those in previous years.

In 2020, 40 percent of first grade students and 35 percent of second grade students  were scoring “well below grade level” on a reading assessment, compared with 27 percent and 29 percent the previous year. That means a school would need to offer “intensive intervention” to nearly 50 percent more students than before the pandemic.

Data analyzed by McKinsey & Company late last year concluded that children have lost at least one and a half months of reading. Other data show low-income, Black and Latinx students are falling further behind than their white peers, leading to worsening achievement gaps.

Experts say it’s now clear families who had time and resources to help their children with academics when schooling was disrupted had a tremendous advantage.

“Higher-income parents, higher-educated parents, are likely to have worked with their children to teach them to read and basic numbers, and some of those really basic early foundational skills that kids generally get in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade,” said Melissa Clearfield, a professor of psychology who focuses on young children and poverty at Whitman College.

“Families who were not able to, either because their parents were essential workers or children whose parents are significantly low-income or not educated, they’re going to be really far behind.”

A student puts a poetry journal away in Heather Miller’s first grade class. Miller noticed most students came in lacking independence and other social skills they typically develop in kindergarten, due to distance learning last year. Credit: Jackie Mader/ The Hechinger Report

What Miller has observed in the first few weeks of the school year is likely taking place in classrooms nationwide, experts say. In April, researchers with the nonprofit NWEA, which develops pre-K-12 assessments, predicted how the pandemic’s disruptions would manifest among the kindergarten class of 2021: a wider range of ability levels; large class sizes with more diverse ages because some parents held children back a grade; and students unfamiliar with in-person classroom routines.

“We predicted that there would be a lot of diversity in skills,” said Brooke Mabry, strategic content design coordinator for NWEA Professional Learning. That includes skills related to academics, social-emotional learning and executive functioning, she added.

The varying experiences children had with school last year also impacted fine motor skill development, independence, ability to navigate conflicts and the “unfinished learning” teachers are now observing, she added.

Related: Remote learning a bust? Some families consider having their child repeat kindergarten

While switching to remote learning was hard on many students, younger students were generally unable to log themselves on to a computer independently and focus on virtual lessons for extended periods of time. Teachers, who usually rely on small, in-person groups for  early literacy skills, instead had to teach letters, sounds and sight words via online platforms.

Miller had the unwieldy task of teaching kids both in person and online, spending her year pivoting between students in front of her and students on her computer screen, using her projector to display books to students at home and teaching reading skills via virtual groups.

Now, with students in front of her again, Miller was finding that those online lessons weren’t as useful as many had hoped.

Miller, 30, is a calm, confident teacher who is in her eighth year of teaching and her second at Doss. She usually has students with a wide range of ability levels at the beginning of the year, although Doss is relatively affluent. Nearly 62 percent of students at the school are white, and fewer than 20 percent are economically disadvantaged, compared with the district average of nearly 53 percent. In 2019, 95 percent of Doss’ students passed the state reading assessment.

Students play outside Doss Elementary in Austin, Texas. Credit: Jackie Mader/ The Hechinger Report

But this year, Miller saw larger gaps in reading skills than ever before. Usually, her first graders would start with reading levels ranging from mid-kindergarten to second grade. This year, the levels spanned early kindergarten up to fourth grade.

“My kids are so spread out in their needs,” Miller said. “I just feel like — and I’m sure every teacher feels like this — there’s so much to teach, and somehow there’s not enough time.”

She’s also seen higher literacy levels for kids who went to school in person last year. To her, it speaks to the immense benefits kids get from all aspects of in-person learning. “It just shows how important it is for these kids to be around their peers and just have normalcy,” she said.

Related: Summer school programs race to help students most in danger of falling behind

To catch kids up, Miller is relying on, among other things, one of the staples of the early elementary classroom: center time. For two hours a day, she works with small groups of students on the specific math and reading skills they are lacking.

On a recent October morning, Miller divided her class into five groups to rotate through various activities around her room. She gave her students a few minutes to finish a writing assignment as she pulled out several sets of small books at various reading levels; colorful plastic, hollow phones so her students could hear themselves read; and for a group of struggling readers, a matching game featuring cards showing various letters and pictures.

A student uses a whisper phone and a green rubber finger to follow along as he reads during center time. Credit: Jackie Mader/ The Hechinger Report

“I feel like I’m teaching four grades,” Miller said as she arranged the materials on her desk.

Several minutes later, seated at a table in the back of the room with five of her grade-level readers, Miller handed them each a phone, a small book and a green witch’s finger to help them point at the words in the book. “Today we’re going to talk about our reading tools,” Miller said, holding up a blue plastic phone. “These are called whisper phones. You whisper so you can hear yourself sound out the words,” she said. “Do these go on our heads?”

“No!” the students said, giggling.

“You know what these are for?” she said, holding up a rubber finger.

“Um, they’re for reading,” one student said. “’Cause I had them in kindergarten.”

“Very good. Are these for picking your nose?” Miller asked.

“No!” the students said, laughing.

She placed a book in front of each child and walked them through a series of exercises, including looking at the cover and predicting what the book would be about.

Then, they opened their books and began to read in a whisper. Miller turned from one side of the table to the other, listening as students read to themselves, pointing at each word with their green rubber fingers. She helped them sound out challenging words, like “away.” One by one, the students finished the book. A few read it several times in the minutes allotted.

Students practice reading using whisper phones during center time in their first grade classroom. Credit: Jackie Mader/ The Hechinger Report

Miller’s next group, all of whom were reading far below grade level, required a different activity. Rather than handing out a book, Miller pulled out a letter-matching game at the table, using materials she had from her days as a kindergarten teacher. She placed two small laminated cards on the table, one showing the letter D and a picture of a dog, and one with the letter B and a picture of a ball.

“We’re going to do your letters today,” Miller said to the group. “What letter is this?” she asked, pointing to the B.

“Ball!” one student responded.

“What letter?” Miller asked again. There was a pause.

“B!” another student responded.

“What sound does it make?”

“Buh,” a third student said.

The students ran through the activity, looking at pictures of items starting with B and D like a doll, ball, dog and dolphin, and sorting them into piles based on the starting letter.

A student reads a book during center time in Heather Miller’s classroom. Credit: Jackie Mader/ The Hechinger Report

Experts like Clearfield say finding new or different strategies to help students learn grade-level content after the last 18 months will be critical, even if that means pulling out activities typically used by lower grade levels, as Miller did with her lowest reading group.

It also may mean recruiting help from outside the classroom. Miller said Doss already had a strong team of interventionists to rely on, and several of her students receive extra reading help during the day.

Miller has also found it helpful to work with her fellow first grade teachers to solve a shared academic challenge. This fall, the first grade teachers all discovered that many of their students were behind in reading sight words. They began meeting regularly to share tips and strategies to combat this.

Despite the obvious need to catch kids up, Miller has been mindful of not coming on too strong with remediation efforts. “I don’t want to push them so hard where they get burned out,” she said on an October evening. “They’ve been through so much.”

Related:  We know how to help young children cope with the trauma of the last year— but will we do it?

Mabry, of NWEA, said while catching students up is important, society needs to view the recovery process as a multiyear effort. “In previous years, when looking at unfinished learning and finding ways to get students to accelerated growth, we never expected that we would get students who need support to meet those accelerated goals in one year. We would never approach it that way,” Mabry said. “Now, we’re so frantic. I think we’re frantic because we feel it’s this larger population.”

Teacher Heather Miller has used activities from her former kindergarten classroom to teach students who are behind in reading skills. Credit: Jackie Mader/ The Hechinger Report

It’s a daunting task, but experts say there is hope.

“Kids will catch up eventually,” said Clearfield from Whitman College. But to get there, society may need to re-evaluate expectations, she added. “If most children in our community are behind by, like, a year or two, then our expectations for what is typical, it’s going to have to match where they are,” Clearfield said. “Otherwise, we are going to be constantly frustrated … we’re going to have expectations that don’t match their skills or abilities.”

By mid-autumn, Miller was heartened by what she was seeing in her classroom. Students were becoming more confident and independent. Their writing was stronger. There were fewer conflicts.

One morning, Miller stood by her desk as students effortlessly transitioned from one activity to the next during center time. They quietly buzzed around, cleaning up activities and putting their notebooks away in cubbies as she prepared to work with a new group of students at her desk.

“It kind of gives me hope that we’ll be OK,” she said. “Even after last year, we’ll be OK.”

This story about reading skills was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.  

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Jackie Mader supervises all photo and multimedia use, covers early childhood education and writes the early ed newsletter. In her nine years at Hechinger, she has covered a range of topics including teacher...

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  1. This seems like a time in education to go back to leveled learning.
    Ms. Miller is an excellent teacher. Learning stresses could have been simplified and learning goals stream-lined if the PreK – 4th grade learners (all who were in the same first grade class) had been placed into classes that met their needs right where they were in their learning. The PreK level children would catch up and become proficient much faster if their teacher could have focused on just the PreK skills verses trying to meet the needs & levels of all PreK-4th grade level learners.
    The advanced 4th grade learners could have continue to excel with a teacher who focused on their strengths and abilities, verses trying to meet the needs of students on 6 different levels. Both lower level learners and advanced learners in the same age range could all have had so many more whole class learning opportunities if their teacher could have laser focused her instruction to similar leveled learners.
    As learning goals are met, students should advance to the next level/class. June, or the end of a school year, should not be the only time students can advance to a new class or learning environment.
    The first 3 years of school should be very fluid. Students should be moved to the next-step up classroom when they are proficient. I do not agree with moving all children up to the next level just because their age has increased or because the “school year” has ended. Just my thoughts from 35 years of experience in graders K-5.

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