News Update

Has the pandemic worsened the literacy crisis?

As the pandemic drags into its third year, a cluster of new studies shows that about a third of children in the youngest grades are missing reading benchmarks, as the New York Times reported, up significantly from before the pandemic.

One study found that early reading skills were at a 20-year low this fall, a situation the researchers described as “alarming.” In another study, 60% of students at some impoverished schools have been identified as at high risk for reading problems — twice the number of students as before the pandemic, according to Tiffany P. Hogan, director of the Speech and Language Literacy Lab at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston.

All children have been affected, but Black and Latino children, as well as those from low-income families, those with disabilities and those who are not fluent in English, seem to have fallen the furthest behind.

“We’re in new territory,” said Hogan about the pandemic’s toll on reading. If children do not become competent readers by the end of elementary school, the risks are “pretty dramatic,” she said, as the New York Times reported. Poor readers are more likely to drop out of high school, earn less money as adults and become involved in the criminal justice system.

To be sure, the literacy crisis did not start with the pandemic. In 2019, results on national and international exams showed stagnant or declining American performance in reading, and widening gaps between high and low performers. The causes are myriad, but many experts point to a lack of teachers trained in phonics and phonemic awareness — the foundational skills of reading. The pandemic has merely worsened this situation.