Unfinished Learning: The Latest Literacy Narrative

By: | 01/18/2022
Category: Data Culture

This is the second in a series of posts about our recent report on unfinished learning, Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021. Our goal is to provide a national perspective on unfinished learning so you can better understand your local needs and how to better address student learning in the coming years.

Despite educators’ tireless efforts to support learning continuity during the pandemic, our latest report, Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021, shows that more students have unfinished learning compared to pre-pandemic averages.

In our first post, we discussed how the degree of unfinished learning differs across grades, subjects, or school demographics. As our national focus around the pandemic turns toward recovery, it’s critical to move past the generic narrative of “mass learning loss” to a more nuanced understanding of student learning that allows us to pinpoint which students need the most deliberate and immediate targeted supports to get them back on track for post-secondary success.

What the Data Reveals about Reading

Using data from the i-Ready Diagnostic assessment, our research team regularly analyzes results from approximately 10 million elementary and middle school learners nationwide. Our latest report, Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021, provides rich insight into students’ reading levels at the beginning of the 2021–2022 school year.

The report reveals:

  • The percentage of Grades 4–8 learners who are on grade level in reading is close to pre-pandemic levels.
  • The percentage of Grades 1–3 learners who are reading on grade level is lower than before the pandemic, and there are more students below grade level by two or more grades.
  • The most significant amount of unfinished learning in reading was seen in Grades 2–3.
  • Schools serving mostly Black, Latino, or low-income learners had more unfinished learning in reading than schools serving mostly White or high-income learners.
Graph illustrating that fewer students are on grade level in reading.

So, while students in Grades 4–8 are close to pre-pandemic levels, younger learners—who are still learning to read—are struggling to catch up. These early years of literacy are turning points in students’ reading and academic journeys, and their learning in these years is a strong indicator of long-term academic success (Hernandez, 2011; The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010).

A Critical Age for Reading

Grades 2, and especially 3, are pivotal developmental years for student learning. In the early elementary years, students are still learning to read. By the time they reach Grades 4–5, they are reading to learn.

Since reading is essential to gaining knowledge, middle school learners who haven’t developed sufficient reading and comprehension skills will lack the literacy necessary to succeed in all subjects. Learners who don’t develop strong reading habits and comprehension benchmarks in early elementary years may never become strong readers and writers and will likely continue to struggle.

Research shows that students who are behind in reading by the end of Grade 3 are four times more likely to drop out or not complete high school on time. The risks are even greater for Black, Latino, and low-income learners.

Graph illustrating that more students have unfinished learning in reading.

Implications for Learning Interventions

Our recent data reveals that Grade 3 learners—especially Black, Latino, and low-income learners—experienced the largest amount of unfinished learning in literacy, which may result in lasting impacts and widening inequities in our educational system and society for years to come.

With so much unfinished learning in reading and English language arts, learners may struggle to become critical thinkers who can interpret, reflect, and articulate their thoughts across the curriculum and in their lives. Simply put, strong reading skills in early elementary years are a gateway to knowledge, learning, opportunity, and success—one that some students, without the right support in a crucial moment, may never cross.

Therefore, we must dedicate significant resources to bring learners up to grade-level reading or the need for intensive intervention will increase, with diminishing returns.

Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to support learners who most urgently need support. These tried-and-true techniques can help educators:

  • Scaffold learning to support personalized instruction
  • Use diagnostic tools to monitor student progress
  • Utilize data to reduce instructional planning time and inform strategic resourcing
  • Leverage technology to enhance teaching and learning
  • Create meaningful experiences with culturally responsive learning resources

Hernandez, D. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED518818.pdf

The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). Early warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters. A kids count special report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED509795.pdf

The State of Early Literacy whitepaper.

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Download our whitepaper The State of Early Literacy: Strategies to Jumpstart It.

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