Improving Reading Education in Rural Kansas Schools
Phonics to the Rescue
In rural Kansas, a small school system in Columbus is grappling with the effects of the pandemic on student learning. Despite going back to in-person learning, the challenges have been many. Even with no remote learning disruption, the students in Columbus still have had to face school closures due to COVID, teachers and students getting sick, social distancing making it difficult to teach small groups, and teaching itself slowing down. As a result, reading education has also suffered. The third-grade class, in particular, is struggling with students’ literacy rates. The district has increased its efforts to help these students catch up with their peers in the past few years.
Adapting to Students’ Needs
Bekah Noel, the third-grade teacher, has had to make many adjustments for students’ needs. For instance, she pairs weak and strong readers for support, reads questions aloud, and even jots down dictated answers to be rewritten in the students’ handwriting. Even though the district avoided any disruptions due to the pandemic, some rural towns in Kansas were so overwhelmed that hospitals had to transport patients hundreds of miles away for adequate treatment. This has only compounded the challenges of rural education systems like Columbus.
The Science of Reading
Noel and her colleagues at Columbus have adopted a new reading curriculum that emphasizes phonics, a science-backed method that has gained traction nationwide. Consisting of phonics and other reading changes throughout the curriculum, the district piloted this curriculum during waves of COVID-19 case spikes. Despite many disruptions, the teachers showed their faith in the program’s efficacy, and it is because of them that the district has moved forward.
The Importance of Third Grade
Third grade is the last year when students typically learn to read, and it is crucial for preparing them for the rest of their educational journey. Unfortunately, Columbus has more third graders than ever who are reading below grade level. With other schools observing the changes made in Columbus, there are signs that it is helping, particularly for older students. However, time is running out for the third-grade students who need to master reading skills as they prepare to move on.
Learning Setbacks and Slow Catch-Up
Federal data across the United States reveals that widespread learning setbacks have been the norm during the pandemic, even in states that maintained in-person learning. Among the hardest hit by the pandemic are this year’s third-graders, who were in kindergarten when the pandemic initially struck, causing a significant decline in foundational learning. Now these students must catch up quickly and improve their reading skills before advancing to higher grade levels.
The Way Forward
Noel’s class and other third graders in the district are under high pressure to grasp reading before moving onto other learning topics. Despite the challenges, some students have made progress, like Emmett, who started off reading like an early second-grader earlier in the year but began to make progress with increased input from teachers. Even then, however, rural school systems like Columbus still face significant challenges.