Researchers to measure ‘coronavirus slide’ in kids’ reading skills

School vacations often lead to a “summer slide” in students’ reading skills. Will the lack of classroom instruction due to COVID-19 restrictions do the same?


Teachers have long been familiar with the “summer slide” — or the loss of reading skills among kindergarteners through second graders during three months away from the classroom. Now researchers from Yale University and University of Connecticut under the auspice of the Haskins Laboratories in New Haven will attempt to measure the damage inflicted by “coronavirus slide,” which may deprive children of six months or more of classroom instruction. Such a slide is expected to lead to a 30% loss in learning compared to a normal school-year.

Learning to read is one of the most challenging tasks that school children face and we fear prolonged loss of instruction could be catastrophic,” said Yale’s Ken Pugh, associate professor of linguistics and radiology and president and director of research at the Haskins Laboratories.

During summer months, the reading skills of children from kindergarten and second grade regress about a full month before they return to the classroom, prior research has shown. The new research at the Haskins Laboratories funded by the National Science Foundation will try to measure both the negative impact on reading caused by widespread school closures and whether the use of remote learning tools can reduce ill effects on young students, particularly those from underserved communities or with special needs.

The need is great. Public schools in particular have difficulty in setting up online learning courses for beginning readers and many in poorer communities have no access to online courses, said Fumiko Hoeft, director of the Brain Imaging Research Center at UConn. She and Pugh are co-principal investigators of new research grant. During the current crisis, as many as 6% of young students have not had any contact with their teachers, and 19% only on an irregular basis, she said.

Young girl playing on a tablet
A child plays a GraphoLearn game at home. The program may help children retain their reading skills when outside of the classroom. (Photo courtesy Kenneth Pugh)

The new study involving 100 educators will measure reading levels of about 2,000 K-2 students and compare them with baseline data of their pre-pandemic levels collected by the school districts. These students will be provided access to a reading program, GraphoLearn, in which students are encouraged to play reading-related games 20 minutes per day, five days a week for 12 weeks.

The game can be played on computers or cell phones and has been even employed in remote areas of Africa, the researchers said. The ability to reach children in poor homes is particularly important so they do not fall further behind students with greater access to technology, the researchers said.

With small differences in learning early in education, the divide between haves and have nots expands over time,” Hoeft said.

Pugh stressed that the new research fits into the ongoing mission of the Haskins Global Literacy Hub, an international and interdisciplinary collaborative of researchers, practitioners, educators, and education technology specialists, to improve language and literacy outcomes for children at risk for reading difficulties across languages and cultures. In response to the current crisis, the hub community has created webinars and other online resources to help teachers and families mitigate the COVID-19 slide.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19

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