The Covid pandemic has significantly disrupted learning over the last several years. National data shows that students faced, and will continue to face, academic challenges as a result of school closures, remote learning and missed days due to sickness, quarantine, and teacher absences. The common term for this academic challenge is “learning loss”, and it is front of mind for everyone invested in education. Policy makers, administrators, school board members and teachers are all coming to terms with how to address learning loss and get students on an academic track to success. 

Teachers heading back into classrooms this fall will face the heaviest burden, as they aim to educate students who may not have the grade level skills students have had in the past.

How should teachers consider responding to academic challenges? We sat down with Dr. Rhonda Vincent, director of educational program innovation here at Momentous Institute, to give us some insight.

We know that students going to school this fall will face academic challenges that may seem bigger to teachers than in years past. For example, a third-grade child may traditionally be able to read more complex pieces of text and comprehend the plot, identify the theme, etc. But this year, a third-grade child may struggle to read even simple texts. Third-grade children today had their last normal school year in kindergarten (and that year was cut short!). So, if students today struggle to read a normal text, how should a teacher approach teaching their normal curriculum?

You cannot force development. And child development has been so disrupted by Covid that there are certain experiences children simply have not had. Some skills, like reading, are what are called experience dependent. This means that they can only happen as a result of other experiences. For example, I can’t teach you to ride a bike if you’ve never been on a bike. And I can’t teach you to read if you haven’t had the other experiences that make reading possible – letter identification, knowing the different sounds each letter makes, blending letters together to form words, and lots and lots of practice. If a child shows up in third grade unable to read at a third-grade level, you can’t force it or teach them overnight. They have to first have the experiences that reading depends upon.


Read more: Understanding Two Types of Childhood Development


This is an unfair thing we are asking educators to do. We’re expecting educators to be like Rumpelstiltskin and turn straw into gold. You can teach at warp speed, but it doesn’t mean students can learn at that pace if their development is lagging due to disruption– which is the case for so many students this year.

So, what can you do? A teacher can find ways to provide these experiences that the skill depends on. Let’s use reading as an example. If I were a third-grade teacher today and some of my students were reading at a kindergarten or first-grade level, I would fill my classroom with books at grade level and below grade level. I’d be at garage sales, the library or anywhere I could get my hands on a stack of books that would meet their current level reading achievement. Of course, I understand that teachers have to teach their grade level curriculum, so I’d continue to teach that material and support lagging skills by supplementing with reading materials at the students’ level. For example, let’s say my curriculum has students reading a nonfiction work about snakes. If I know that some students in my class will not be able to read the material, I will go to the library or borrow as many books about snakes at different reading levels that I could get my hands on. I wouldn’t go up to a single student and say, “Here’s a book for you because the other book is too hard”, but I would say, “Here are several books about snakes. Take a pick of whatever book you’d like to read about snakes.”

This same process can apply to many subjects. If students can’t do the basic math required for the subject, consider supplementing with math games, apps, computer programs or other assignments that give them those skills – even if they’re way below “grade level”.

There’s no way to rush it – you can’t snap your fingers and get students to read fluently or answer two-step math problems until they can first do the one-step problems. So as a teacher, your responsibility is to just give them as many opportunities as you can to build those earlier skills and supplement the grade-level material with work that helps them build those muscles.

What are some ways that teachers can help students without making them feel ashamed of what they don’t know?

I think of development like a flower. A flower opens and blooms when given the essential components of water and sunlight. You can stare at a flower all night long, but it will not bloom until the sun comes out. This is like a child’s development. You can wish for something, but it won’t happen until the child is ready. Thinking about this can free us from blaming and shaming the child. He or she hasn’t received the essentials that they need to bloom, and it’s certainly not their fault.

What we don’t want is a whole generation of students feeling like a failure. That will not be a good trajectory for any of us. COVID-19 learning loss is not a result of laziness or poor motivation. So, it is important for educators to recognize that each child’s learning journey is just that – a journey. Each child will learn differently and at different speeds, and that is okay. Emphasize each student’s effort, tenacity, and positive attitude. These are the characteristics that will help a child build a positive learner identity.

What are some ways to do that effectively?

The term I like to use for this is approximation. That is – incremental progress towards a main goal. We know that we have to (somehow) make up for two years of lost time, and that’s a daunting task. Understand that while the larger goal is important, it’s smart to celebrate small wins along the way.

I wonder if we’re thinking enough about how much effort students will have to put in to make up for some of the learning loss that has happened. It will require unbelievable amounts of focus and attention, persistence and grit. Educators have to pay equal (if not more) attention to the effort than the outcome. We must pay attention to approximations to the skill, and credit students for the effort it took to get there. When students feel safe and reinforced in their hard work, they’ll continue to show up and work hard to achieve the next approximation.

Any other closing thoughts on learning loss?

We saw all through the pandemic that parents and families were a part of the learning in ways we’ve never been able to achieve before. We don’t want to lose sight of that! Most parents are willing and capable of supporting their child’s learning. I encourage teachers to lean into this, continue to leverage help at home, and connect with parents in a way that works for them. Kids who have several caring adults supporting them come out on top.

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