Dr. ​​Gustaf Öqvist Seimyr, one of the cofounders of Lexplore

Assistive Technology, Digitizing, School Leaders

Learning Loss From Sweden to England to the U.S.

Data shows that students all over the world have fallen behind during the pandemic, but there is a clear path to getting them back on track.

Though the dust is still settling on just how extensive and deep learning losses related to COVID-19 disruptions have been here in the United States, it’s clear that, as expected, students and teachers are going to have ground to make up beginning this fall. New research looking at the reading proficiency of Lexplore users in Sweden and England suggested two key conclusions. First, we’re not alone: learning loss is affecting students around the globe. Second, remote learning was only one factor contributing to those learning losses.

The results were surprising, but they also reveal a path forward for educators in the U.S. and around the world.

Learning Loss in Sweden

Compared to many other countries, Sweden didn’t really close down schools. Students and teachers continued to show up to school in person, carrying on as normally as possible. Nevertheless, the pandemic created many challenges, such as high rates of sick leave for teachers and students, limited or totally unavailable substitutes, daily crisis meetings, local restrictions, severe pressure on teachers and staff, and some temporary lockdowns.

To measure the attendant learning losses in literacy, Lexplore compared reading ability measurements created with its tool in the 2020-2021 school year with those of the previous year. The data pool included 57,356 assessments of students in grades 2-6 between fall 2019 and spring 2021. The assessments were performed at 240 schools led by 40 different principals.

They found that students were behind the previous year by an average of 10 percentile points, or about 7–8 months worth of learning. The drop affected both struggling and strong readers, and was more pronounced among middle school students, a finding echoed in Renaissance’s How Kids Are Performing report on U.S. students.

Learning Loss in England

Lexplore also compared reading assessments performed across years in England which, like the U.S., did switch to remote learning for the pandemic. While there was some learning loss in England, it was much less pronounced than in Sweden, with students behind just five percentile points, or about four months, compared to the previous year. Another key difference in England was that already struggling students showed the greatest learning losses.

One potential explanation for those differences is that remote learning actually led to more reading, according to the What Kids Are Reading report from Renaissance, which looks at the reading habits of more than 1 million students in the U.K. and Ireland each year. It seems that stronger readers were able to hold a bit more ground as they continued to read, while students who find reading challenging tended to fall further behind. 

Although this data comes from other countries, there are a number of lessons that U.S. educators can learn from it and apply during the coming school year.

Assessing Efficiently

One thing these findings makes clear is that the pandemic has affected student achievement in ways that may be surprising or counterintuitive to many educators. The appropriate response to that uncertainty is, of course, to assess individual students to see exactly where they are and provide them the appropriate support.

Assessment fatigue is likely to be an issue in the coming school year, so fast and efficient assessments will be key.

Providing Struggling Readers Extra Help

In-person learning is going to be particularly important for struggling readers. While their peers were able to maintain or even improve their reading ability simply through practice, these students fell behind their classmates even more than in a typical year. Teachers need to understand that the range of skills in their classroom is going to be wider than usual.

Establishing Trust Through Grace and Resilience

Students are going to catch up in time. Kids have a strong drive to learn and they’ll get there eventually, but they are going to be behind the expectations of a typical year for the next semester or two at the least. Teachers should give them a little grace and be prepared to start at a slightly lower level than usual—while at the same time preparing to increase their expectations. Students will likely catch up quickly.

The Power of Peer Learn

Teaching time is going to be a key resource in the coming school year, so it may be appropriate to incorporate more group work than usual this year. Assessing students, grouping them according to ability, and having them work together on exercises will free teachers to move around the room and provide extra attention to groups as they need it.

In a similar vein, administrative tasks—or anything that takes time away from teaching, really—should be taken off teachers’ plates wherever possible. Teachers are exactly what students have been missing for the last year, and they’re going to need them in the classroom as much as possible this year. Otherwise, the problem may actually grow.

Understanding We’re All in This Together

Educators and families are going to have to work together to support each child in the coming year. Families are going to have to participate in their children’s education even more than in a normal year. Family help will be key for teachers, but teachers will need to empower families to help them. More frequent and earlier communication will be key. Some families will have a hard time hearing that their child is falling behind, but this is not something wrong with their student or the school system. It’s just a natural result of the year-plus crisis of the pandemic. We can recover from this, but we are going to have to support each other, and especially our children.

Dr. ​​Gustaf Öqvist Seimyr, one of the cofounders of Lexplore, is a computational linguist who received his Ph.D. in 2016 from Uppsala University. His doctor’s thesis was on readability on mobile devices. Gustaf is a researcher in eye-movement tracking and reading at the Marianne Bernadotte Centre at Karolinska Institutet. He can be reached at gustaf.oqvist.seimyr@lexplore.com.

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