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Children find it difficult to read books in an age where the screen is school. Illustration: Aastha Sethi

‘Entertained without reading’: B.C. teachers, parents address dip in students’ reading habits amidst pandemic

New school year opens up discussions about the state of reading in hybrid-learning environments

By Aastha Sethi and Ayilya Thampuran , in Education , on February 14, 2022 Tags: , , , ,

Mary Jocelyn Calderon started re-arranging her daughter’s at-home “school” area during the pandemic, worried about the way she would turn to her iPad all the time even when she had no assignments. She also tried to make reading more appealing by taking her child outdoors to find familiar words to read out loud and spell.

“If she didn’t feel like reading at home, I would take her outside the house, and once she’s got her daily activity and a small amount of reading,” said the Surrey mother. “We would come back home and try to read some more. Though, ‘reading some more’ was quite rare.”

She believes her child’s reading was affected by B.C.’s brief move to online schooling. 

Calderon’s concerns that her daughter’s reading fell during the pandemic are not unfounded. A Stanford study released in March 2021 showed evidence of stalled growth of basic reading skills during different periods in 2020. A reading assessment of first- to fourth-graders showed their oral reading fluency skills stood 30 per cent behind what is expected in a typical year. 

The study acknowledges that reading levels have dropped but Adrienne Gear, the B.C.-based author of Reading Power, suggests that results like this can be an expected impact of the pandemic. She is more concerned about the enormous pressure that “students being behind expectations’”places on the teacher. 

“The reality is, our students are behind a standard benchmark that was developed before the pandemic. So, measuring children’s achievements in reading or any other subject now against their achievements three years ago is not realistic.  It is not the children’s fault they have fallen behind, nor is it their teachers.”

In Gear’s experience, kids who say they don’t like to read are often the ones who may not feel confident in their reading skills. Her observation is in line with the B.C. student learning survey which has been tracking students’ attitudes towards their own reading skills for the past five years.

The results from the 2021 report shows there has been a consistent decrease in third- and fourth-graders who feel they have improved as readers between 2017 and 2021. Although this lack of motivation to read has been an issue for many years, parents and teachers were hopeful with the extra time during the pandemic, the results might change.

An empty children’s bookstore in Vancouver, B.C. Photo: Ayilya Thampuran

Third-grade teacher Jeff Abaquin believes inconsistency in school and disruptions with home learning have been a major reason reading habits declined during the pandemic.

“Home learning is completely dependent on the availability of parents and that is simply an uncontrollable factor for teachers. If parents are not available, the system at home may not realistically help the children.” 

B.C. never had a longstanding move to classes online. Public-school closures were limited to 12 weeks, less than most provinces.

“There wasn’t the infrastructure to do so [move classes online] properly or well. In B.C., we have had children in the schools learning more than any other Canadian jurisdiction,” said Andrea Sinclair, president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils. 

But even though B.C. students spent more time in the classrooms than anywhere else, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s SPEAK survey showed 90.8 per cent of parents of kids between five and 17 said their children had more screen time compared to pre-pandemic figures. 

That’s because using the same devices for learning as for entertainment can be a cause for distraction, say educators.

“I assist a few classes in the library each week and most of the eight- to 11-year-old boys only want to check out books on Minecraft. I’d rather kids play Minecraft than most other things but it is still frustrating that the only books they are interested in are video game tutorial guides,” said B.C. elementary teacher Jesse Dramer about the cross-over between tech and reading. 

Children play on a mini-carousel near a bookstore in Vancouver, B.C. Photo: Ayilya Thampuran

Recent years have seen new technological strategies incorporating machine learning and data collection for a plethora of practical uses.

In the new hybrid-learning environment, technology-driven tools like Epic, a subscription service for an online library of children’s books, and Simbi, a Vancouver-based learning ecosystem that uses narration and tracks reading progress, have addressed the stalled reading. Epic released a 2021 report showing an 89 per cent spike in kids’ reading habits on their platform amidst the pandemic. 

Gear explained how reading platforms recently gained traction, providing a place for students to practice reading when schools were shut down. “There are many online reading platforms where students are encouraged to ‘read more books more often’ and motivate users with gamification and incentives like points and badges.”

Aaron Friedland, CEO of Simbi, witnessed students become less motivated and reading habits decline on a global scale during the pandemic. 

“Developing tools and learning resources that work in an in-class setting but work just as well at home, while having the same data to track through, whether it’s hybrid, in-person or remote, and providing that consistency, we believe is the future.”