By Janet Lane and Gary Mar
Published in the Globe and Mail

December 21, 2020

The ability to learn is the most critical skill. It allows people to grow their minds, to find and keep a job, and to earn promotions. And the ability to learn depends on a person’s capacity to understand what they have read.

Teachers and parents know about the magic that happens when children learn to read. As with so many skills, a child learns slowly and gradually, gradually, gradually – before all of a sudden, the light comes on and they are reading. The squiggles on the page become letters, then sounds, and then words, and then words correspond to the words in their vocabulary and help to expand it.

When a child becomes a fluid reader, their brain begins to absorb what they read – and learn from it. Before that moment, though, all the brain power goes toward decoding the squiggles on the page. This basic hardware gives a child the foundation from which to learn until they can manage much more advanced tasks and problems.

Which makes a November study about childhood literacy in Canada particularly worrisome. University of Alberta professor George Georgiou studied children of all grades in a sampling of Alberta school districts before and after COVID-19 classroom shutdowns, and found that the youngest cohort – in Grades 1 to 3 – have fallen behind an average of six to eight months in their reading during the pandemic; older students are, in general, doing better.

By the middle of Grade 3 and going into Grade 4, children are expected to progress from learning to read, to reading to learn. For older children who were already fluent readers, the move to learning online was not as difficult as for children who weren’t there yet.

These findings are compounded by a separate November report by Deloitte for the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation, which makes clear that, while the home learning environment is a major factor in learning for all children, it is most often children in lower socioeconomic status families who are most disadvantaged when it comes to learning to read.

COVID-19 has only exacerbated these issues, as access to reading materials was limited when libraries and schools closed, and time to read with young children is harder to come by when families are under stress.

Deloitte’s report makes recommendations to improve the data Canada collects on children’s literacy levels, and to boost both awareness of the importance of children’s literacy and the resources available for parents and caregivers. It also recommends investing in early childhood education as part of any programs implemented for young children, and improving outcomes for families with economic challenges.

This report is especially timely given the loss of reading skills in Canada’s youngest students because of the pandemic. Acting upon the recommendations has become even more urgent.

We would add the recommendation that targeted interventions designed to help children quickly regain what they have lost be provided by teachers trained to deliver this programming. Intervention cannot wait until the next school year; it is needed in January, when children return to school. Every day that a child falls behind in reading will make learning anything else harder.

It could also make their future harder. In the past, Canada has had a large number of jobs that required only routine application of skills and which could be learned quickly and easily. Many people who had trouble learning in regular classrooms, especially those who did not learn to read well enough to apply what they read, were able to find employment that did not require lifelong learning.

The situation today is very different. Jobs that involve mostly routine tasks are being eliminated or changed so people work alongside machines that perform these tasks. This trend has been accelerated by the pandemic.

The jobs in the current economy require people to adapt, learn and grow – sometimes very quickly. If Canada fails to provide adequate supports to the children who are falling behind today, they will slowly fall further behind in school and become less able to obtain good work in the jobs of the future.

There have been questions about how students were doing as schools were closed or moved in and out of online learning. Now, there is the data needed to spur action today and in the next few months. Provincial governments must put resources into providing support for literacy education for these youngest children who are falling behind.

Everyone has been burdened in some way by the restrictions imposed to minimize the loss of life through the pandemic. It is up to older generations to ask education systems to ensure that the youngest children don’t carry their burden for the rest of their lives.

Janet Lane is the director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation. Gary Mar is the president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation and a former minister of education in Alberta.