University of Alberta: Reading program helps young learners bounce back from COVID disruptions

As educators around the world assess how school disruptions and online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic have affected students, a project led by a University of Alberta researcher is showing that targeted interventions can help make up for learning loss among students with reading difficulties and set them up for educational success later on.

George Georgiou, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, and his team implemented a reading intervention program in Alberta’s Fort Vermilion, Black Gold, St. Albert Catholic and Lakeland Catholic school divisions that entailed training teachers to provide four 30-minute lessons a week to students in grades 2 and 3 with reading difficulties. The lessons were given from October 2021 through February 2022 and were overseen by the research team and literacy consultants in each school division.

The study comprised 83 classes from the four school divisions, for a total of 362 students receiving interventions in groups of three or four from 66 interventionists. The 30-minute lessons focused on phonics, teaching irregular words and shared book reading that reinforced recognizing letter combinations taught in the lessons.

“We found that 82 per cent of the children improved over time and, on average, their improvement was equal to 1.5 years. Of all the children who received intervention, 72 per cent no longer have reading problems,” said Georgiou, whose team assessed the students’ reading abilities before and after the intervention period.

“A few kids started very low, so even though they improved over time they still have reading problems,” Georgiou noted. “We have to continue providing some intervention to them, but it’s a positive sign that they improved over time.”

He added that the students will be reassessed later in the school year to ensure they’ve maintained the gains they made.

Georgiou said a research partnership grant from Alberta Education and the work of PhD student Kristy Dunn in creating the training materials and educational resources to prepare teachers for the interventions, as well as the contributions of renowned literacy experts including Rauno Parrila of Macquarie University and Robert Savage of York University, were all key in achieving the results so quickly.

“As far as I know, this is the only data available on addressing learning losses through an intervention in Canada that has been done with a methodologically rigorous approach,” he said.

Another important aspect of the project was that, rather than sending his graduate students to conduct the interventions as he had done in the past, Georgiou created internal capacity by training teachers and literacy consultants, involving school superintendents in the planning and ensuring consistency in the way interventions were conducted.

“We created a community of people thinking about reading intervention and how they can support their students in schools,” Georgiou said. “The school divisions that have the interventions have them forever — they can use them as they wish.”

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