Establish Daily Reading Routines to Combat COVID-19 Learning Loss

Before

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a cornerstone feature of public education was SSR. SSR stands for Sustained Silent Reading, and while the exact implementation of SSR programming can vary greatly depending on the district or school or grade level or teacher, the idea is that students are regularly reading for recreation.

Read more about what SSR is and why it’s so important here.

The more experienced I have become as an educator, the more I have come to value SSR. Whenever I launch SSR, I always promise my students that they will have 15–20 minutes to read every day no matter what. And I kept my promise. Even on half-days, even if it was all we had time for, we read.

Let me do some math for you: In one five-day week, my students would have 75–100 minutes devoted to recreational reading. Carried out over one twelve-week trimester, students would have about 15–20 hours of recreational reading.

During this time, students are discovering the joy of reading, building independence, figuring out what kinds of books they like, developing their reading comprehension skills, expanding their vocabularies, subconsciously analyzing how writers write. And of course, outside of those 15–20 minutes each day, we are writing about our books in our journals, talking about our books in small groups and as a whole class, recommending books to one another.

In short, my students are establishing identities as readers that will continue beyond that one class, developing habits that will hopefully sustain them through adulthood.

I was applying my mascara at around 6:00 in the morning on March 13, 2020, when I learned that the high school where I teach would be closing for an undetermined amount of time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I finished getting ready and throughout my thirty-minute commute, I tried to prepare myself for my last day of face-to-face instruction for the foreseeable future. I thought about my students and the anxieties they must be feeling. I thought about my students who were food-insecure, students who didn’t feel safe at home, students who were just starting to understand their LGBTQ+ identities and only felt comfortable acknowledging those identities at school.

I also thought about all of the small grants I have received over the past few years to help me build out my classroom library. I thought about the books I fought so hard for my students to have access to. After four years in the same school, I finally had a manga collection. I had two full shelves of graphic novels, $30 full-color hardcover books about professional sports, and a dozen books on regional history and Michigan legends and ghost stories. I planned to send students home with as many books as possible, but I knew that most of them would stay in my classroom, locked up, their spines uncracked and their pages pristine. I knew that it was very unlikely that any of my students would fall in love with reading this spring.

And I know it probably seems silly to non-educators, but I’m crying right now as I write this, thinking about the injustice: books without readers and readers without books. Geographically, my students are so close to so much wonderful reading material, but as short as the distance may be, it might as well be an ocean.

Photo by Stefanie Brook Trout

After

For three weeks, students, teachers, and parents were in limbo, waiting to find out what would happen with the rest of the school year. I engaged with as many students as I could online, asking them to simply read something and write something every day but finding that unless I posted a specific assignment to read and respond to, it didn’t happen.

School was technically closed until April 20, when my district officially had permission to implement their Continuity of Learning Plan. At the high school level, the Plan called for 20–40 minutes of student learning per class per day.

Needless to say, I have been unable to fulfill my promise to students this trimester, that I would protect SSR time no matter what.

I likely would have been reprimanded if my lessons had just been “read whatever you want for 20 minutes every day” — and for good reason since most students need a lot of support and guidance and encouragement to find success in SSR. Many of them don’t have access to high-interest reading materials at home and, with schools and libraries inaccessible, don’t know how to find them.

And so, for the first time in my career as a high school English teacher, SSR went away — and with it, all the benefits students reap from recreational reading.

Forward

As we approach the end of the academic year, a lot of the conversation is about how schools will combat the learning loss students have suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated closures.

But when it comes to addressing learning loss, we shouldn’t just be discussing how to fix it; we need to be talking about how to prevent it. Learning loss is happening right now, will continue to happen this summer, and — though we don’t know what school will look like — will almost certainly continue into the fall if we don’t have a robust plan that meets the needs of all learners.

To minimize COVID-19 learning loss, the most important thing that needs to be happening right now — the thing that people aren’t talking about — is that we need to get books in students’ hands so they can resume daily reading practice.

Parents, I know this time is difficult, and the last thing you think you need is someone who doesn’t have children of their own and doesn’t know your individual circumstances telling you what to do and how to raise your kid. But I beg you: Start making your child read for 15–20 minutes every day.

If you don’t have high-interest reading materials for your child or a way to purchase them, reach out. Talk to your child’s teacher and/or school administrator. Your kid’s school is full of books, and though getting them in your child’s hands won’t be as simple as it used to be, it’s possible. Find a Little Free Library near you. Talk to your local library to find out how to rent e-books. Talk to your friends and your neighbors, and start a book exchange system.

When you have the books, designate times and places for reading. Help your child establish and maintain a daily reading routine, but remember: it’s recreation. If and when you start encountering reluctance, be willing to read with your child — reading to them or simply alongside them.

Don’t underestimate the power of modelling. If I checked my email or graded papers during SSR, a good portion of my students would likewise try to use the time in some other way. But when I read my own books during SSR, they read too — every last one of them. They knew I believed in the value of reading because I valued it for myself as well.

Ask your child about what they are reading. It’s not a quiz, just a conversation. Tell them about things you read — books, emails, articles. Talk to them about your own journey as a reader — the books you loved or the struggles you had.

Show your child that you are a reader and that they are too. The more they internalize their identities as readers, the more confidently they will approach new material. And then, no matter the learning they may have lost, as readers, they will be better prepared to find it.

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