The Masks Are Off: Post-Pandemic Literacy Learning Strategies
Looking back, we now know the pandemic devastated literacy learning in beautifully diverse, culturally rich schools like mine more than the rest. But those of us on the ground, masked-up in class and reading at a distance, saw the warning signs.
I was in my seventh year of teaching at Meadowlark Elementary, a Title I school in Salt Lake City, when the world fell apart. We’d been in school turnaround since I started my career, dedicating weekly PLCs to bringing up our students’ reading scores and performance on language arts assessments. And yet, most of my sixth-grade students were reading to learn and the rest were progressing just fine in my classic Tier II reading groups. Fast forward one year, and the data was clear—our students had fallen far behind, they were disengaged and less motivated to learn, our old ways weren’t working, we needed new strategies NOW.
‘I don’t know how to teach kids to read!’
That was a hard thing to admit to my colleagues, but I never imagined I’d need to teach early literacy in upper-elementary. Between our resource teachers and reading interventionists, I never felt the need to study the science of reading for myself. I was the 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year, a Top 4 finalist for National Teacher of the Year, and I didn’t know how to teach children to read.
That’s when my team and I stumbled into the world of Structured Literacy instruction. I reacquainted myself with phonemic awareness, administering my first phonological screeners since grad school. I began focusing on my students’ decoding and phonics, their mastery of specific word patterns, and letter-sound correspondences. As a grade level, we adopted a program with a clear scope and sequence for teaching students to break down multisyllabic words to their individual parts, we fully integrated Lexia® PowerUp Literacy® into our Tier II literacy rotations, and statewide LETRS® training was mandated by Utah’s Board of Education.
At the height of the pandemic, we had our pieces in place and a plan of action. We still weren’t sure we knew what we were doing, but it was time to give our new strategies a try.
Back to Basics
Maybe it was the heavy breathing that came with the masks, but I felt like Mickey teaching a room full of Rockies to read. Our training was consistent, explicit, systematic, and back to basics:
- Spelling words back and forth in pairs and groups to reinforce common spelling rules.
- Breaking down long words to their syllables and building them back up, swapping out morphological elements (prefixes, suffixes, roots) to create new words.
- Experimenting with syntax at the sentence and paragraph levels to change the meaning or tone of our writing.
- Playing rhyming and alliterative word games out loud to strengthen oral fluency, along with other research-based literacy intervention tools like choral reading and other opportunities to practice with prosody (rhythm, volume, intonation).
- Using cross-curricular connections to deepen their understanding of key vocabulary terms.
My students could tell their teacher had a clear plan and confidence in its implementation. Like athletes meeting with their coach after a big race, I conferenced once a week with each student to monitor their progress in reading fluency and analyze their individual growth on Lexia PowerUp. We had wonderful discussions about all aspects of their reading game and set reasonably ambitious goals together for the following week. Rather than basing goals on time on task, my readers and I focused on unit completion and the percentage needed to complete the next level of Word Study, Grammar, or Comprehension. Having their teacher pay this level of attention to their performance, along with awesome growth in my students’ reading outcomes, resulted almost immediately in greater engagement, motivation, and ownership of their literacy learning.
Thankfully, the pandemic came and went, and school is back to normal.
Every morning, my students begin their day by choral reading a social studies or science passage I know they’ll find interesting together. They summarize what they read, then speed read the passage for one minute—mostly just for fun. I never lost my love for read-alouds and kids quietly reading texts they’ve self-selected in corners; these are precious parts of our reading life together and will always spark joy in my classroom. The targeted strategies and literacy training programs I developed during those dark days are cornerstones of my practice, and it’s thanks to Structured Literacy and the science of reading that, for the first time in a decade, Meadowlark Elementary has exited school turnaround!
And now that my students are stronger readers, the question I ask myself as their teacher is: What should they be doing with all these skills?
I work hard to train proficient readers so they can become empowered leaders. After a few years of pandemic, I am less interested in students as content consumers as I am in their abilities as content creators. The symbiotic relationship between reading and writing is a deep and profound connection in our classroom, and it’s for that reason that my students have gained national recognition for the videos and other digital content they create and share on YouTube and other platforms as 9thEvermore.
So, if you’re an educator searching not only for strategies, but also motivation and inspiration, I humbly offer my students’ brilliant work. And when the next global disaster comes our way and you wonder why anything matters—let alone literacy—in such hard times, remember that purposeful reading seeds powerful writing and empowered student voices.
About the Contributor
John Arthur is the 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year and 2021 National Teacher of the Year finalist. He is in his 10th year of teaching at Meadowlark Elementary, a Title I school in Salt Lake City. Arthur is a National Board Certified Teacher, a Utah Teacher Fellow with the Hope Street Group, and an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Education at Westminster College.
Want to learn more about how educators at Meadowlark Elementary approached their literacy instruction post-pandemic?
Join John Arthur as he walks listeners through the three-step process he took with his team to revamp the Utah school’s literacy program and in-class teaching methods. Arthur offers insight into integrating technology-based interventions to move students forward, going back to the basics, and high-leverage practices that keep students making progress toward their goals.
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