Filling in the Covid Gaps: What’s Most Important in Helping Students Rebuild their Reading Comprehension Skills

Last week, I was at lunch with a teacher friend. We had just come from school, so naturally, we began swapping stories about the effects of the pandemic. She shared that her school recently moved to optional masking, and her students were “completely different kids” after seeing her smile for the first time all school year. 

See, for us teachers, the effects of the pandemic have never been hard to find. At times, for me, these effects of COVID-19 have felt insurmountable, like I will never be able to elevate my students to their potential or at the very least to their grade level. I have feared that these effects will begin to snowball into lifelong learning deficiencies which will, in turn, become generational learning deficiencies.

Unfortunately, we also know that the pandemic has not just affected students’ emotionally but also educationally. According to a Stanford research study cited in the National Library of Medicine, in 17 U.S. states “the average student had lost one-third of a year to a full year’s worth of learning in reading.” Even though this statistic by itself is staggering, it is only made worse when taking into account students with special needs and students of color who are affected disproportionately by COVID

An Opportunity for Growth


Let’s not zip up our snowsuits to chase this snowball down our self-made slippery slope just yet. What if, instead, we saw this moment in history as an opportunity to reassess our teaching methods and to learn new ones? What if we embraced this as the time to let that snowball go and turn our eyes upward, back towards the mountaintop of innovative education?

As I have thought through what skills are most important for my students to master during these unprecedented times, I have continually come back to how fundamental reading comprehension is to every subject area. I have reminded myself that if my students can read critically, then I have at least laid a strong foundation for them to build on. Below, I have listed some “tried and true” methods that I have used in my classroom to bolster my students’ reading comprehension. 

During-Reading Annotations


I had a student contact me during their freshman year of college saying, “Ms. Hopkins, thank you for teaching us how to annotate! Our professor asked us who knew how to critically annotate, and I was the only one who raised my hand. Later, he used my assignments as an example to the class.”

Annotating (underling, note-taking, highlighting, questioning, etc. while reading) has been proven to increase student comprehension across the disciplines. According to Carol Porter-O’Donnell in “Beyond the Yellow Highlighter: Teaching Annotation Skills to Improve Reading Comprehension,” annotating is fundamental to reading because it creates a conversation between the student and the text, not just a lecture on behalf of the text. Here are some specific ways teachers of all grade levels can incorporate annotations into their reading lessons: 

  • Elementary and middle school teachers can use Creative Annotations (annotating with drawings or emojis) as described by Lauren Gehr in her article “More Than Highlighting: Creative Annotations. Gehr argues that illustrative annotations engage students more effectively than classic annotations. 
  • High school teachers can create an annotation key with their students for them to use as they read. For example, students may elect to underline characterization, circle imagery, write questions about the plot in the margins, etc. My students always love seeing my “stream of consciousness” marginal notes, so be sure to demonstrate the skill for them! Also, check out Carol Porter-O’Donnell’s annotation example of “The Story of an Hour.”

Pre-Reading or Post-Reading Writing Prompts


Writing and reading go hand in hand. The more students write, the better they read and vice versa. A sure way to improve reading comprehension skills is through writing about what they have read or will read. These prompts can be creative, argumentative, informative, etc. and can also be used in any subject area. 

In the past, my students have especially loved debating about their predictions after writing their predictions independently. Here are a few more specific activities I have used that all teachers can incorporate into their reading lessons: 

  • Elementary teachers: After finishing each chapter (or paragraph depending on age), students can track predictions for what’s to come in a predictions journal for that text. 
  • Middle school teachers: Students can assign “Most Likely To” awards to the characters in a novel (Ex.: Most Likely to Win Class Clown, Most Likely to Anger Their Parents, etc.), OR students can create a series of Snapchat or Instagram posts from a character’s point of view.
  • High school teacher (any subject): Students can create a dialectical journal, a chart-style journal entry that allows students to communicate with the text. For more information on how to create a dialectical journal, visit this article from Imaginated.com.
  •  All 7-12 teachers: In Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week assignment, students will read about current events and write a short response. This activity is a great weekly assignment that keeps students engaged in today’s events while also calling for annotations and writing practice. 

Individualized Instruction


Okay, hear me out before you throw cabbage at me screaming, “Aren’t you a teacher too? You know we don’t have time or resources for this!” Due to the pandemic, education has seen a rise in many online platforms that help target individualized needs. Therefore, teachers can assign work that will meet students where they are specifically instead of assigning the same class-wide assignment knowing it will be too hard or too simple for some students. Here are some I have used myself and found most helpful: 

  • (K-8) Teachers: Moby Max is a free site that allows for individualized reading comprehension passages and assesses reading level for each student. I have given “Moby Max Time” as a class where students log in and work on where they are individually in each unit based on their reading level. It is amazing! 
  • All grades/subjects: Khan Academy lessons and units can be assigned based on grade level. I have used Khan Academy for older grade levels in the same way that I use Moby Max for younger levels; students can work on student-specific areas rather than class-wide assignments!

All grades: ReadTheory’s Weekly Reading Activity allows teachers to assign passages and track student progress. It is a great resource that allows teachers to digitally monitor individual growth. Any website that creates data charts for me is a win!

Most Simply, But Most Importantly: READ, READ, READ!


Reading, like most skills, is undoubtedly improved with practice. Find ways to read at any moment, even if it’s a short text, the lunch menu, the daily announcements, the poem of the day on the Poetry Foundation website, or the weekly reading activity here on ReadTheory. These small reading moments will grow your young readers’ confidence and fluency. 

The task we have been given as teachers to help students overcome learning gaps is no easy feat. However, with the right planning and resources, you will be sure to see growth!

Written by Callison Hopkins,

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