Blog Post

We Still Have Time: How to Better Students’ Reading Skills in 2022

We all know it, but we still don’t want to believe it. Many of our students have fallen further and further behind in reading after nearly two years of disrupted learning. A report by McKinsey & Company, “COVID-19 and Education: The Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning” (July 2021), estimates that on average students started this year four months behind in reading, and for those students in low-income schools, the gap was even wider.

This is a crisis. Our elementary students have missed the opportunity to learn and master critical foundational skills necessary to become successful readers. So what do we do? Here are some thoughts and guiding questions to help shape instruction as we move into 2022:

Data is our friend, not our enemy. Just because we don’t like what the data says doesn’t mean it is wrong or bad. In fact, data is needed now more than ever so we understand where we are and where we need to go.

Are students reaching benchmarks? Universal screening data for reading is vital as it tells us about the reading health of our students. It doesn’t tell us what to teach, we need additional data for this, but it does tell us if our students are reaching benchmarks, meaning they are on track to becoming successful readers. Start by determining the number of students who have reached the winter benchmarks.

What are we looking for in our universal screening data from fall to winter? It is important to track students’ reading growth over time. We want to see more students reaching benchmark and fewer students at risk as we move from beginning to middle to end of year. If we don’t see a bump in our data, we need to ask what we are doing for ALL students (Tier 1):

  • Are we focusing on high-priority skills that support decoding and language comprehension (Simple View of Reading, Gough & Tunmer, 1986)?
  • Does our teaching follow the Science of Reading? Our instruction should be explicit and systematic, providing students with lots of opportunities to respond with immediate corrective feedback to support their learning.
  • Have we incorporated enough practice for students to achieve automaticity and mastery? Students should have access to practice material in and out of school to help them learn critical reading skills to mastery.

Tier 1 instruction is the primary solution for addressing missed opportunities to learn and for filling in skill gaps due to disrupted instruction. Within our Tier 1 instruction, we need to incorporate ways to support students both in whole group and during small-group differentiated instruction.

What about our students who are at risk? What can we do for them? Our universal screening data tells us who needs additional help, but we still need to know what specific skills they need help with and how to help them.

Easy? Well, no. It requires time, energy, and thought. As a wise colleague once said, “Thinking is required.”

Reading groups for students who are at risk: What to teach at Tier 2. Some students will require additional reading support beyond what is provided in Tier 1. We need to spend intervention time wisely so that every minute is focused on teaching skills that lead to reading success. Therefore, before we jump into teaching, we should conduct further assessments on foundational skills like phonemic awareness and phonics to determine which specific skills students know and still need to learn.

You wouldn’t want your doctor to perform a procedure on you until she diagnosed what was wrong with you? The same is true when helping students acquire reading skills.

Once we know what to teach, we need to know how to teach it. As we noted above, the Science of Reading informs what our instruction should look like. This is true across tiers of instruction. The science tells us our instruction should be explicit and systematic, providing students with lots of opportunities to respond with immediate corrective feedback to support their learning. More on this below.

 Small-group Tier 2 instruction is often about intensity. Students who are at risk need more focused instruction, and small intervention groups can provide this by including the following instructional features:

  • Explicit: Provide additional modeling so students can see, hear, and observe what you are asking of them. This increases their chances of doing it right the first time.
  • Systematic: Use the same instructional language and routines and only change the skills being taught. This allows students to have a schema of how the lesson will go so they can focus on the skills being taught. Use a structured scope and sequence that systematically moves from easier to more difficult skills.
  • Lots of opportunities to respond: Have students respond multiple times, spaced over time, and using various activities. When learning words, typical learners may need up to 12 practice opportunities, while students at risk may require up to 25 opportunities (Lemoine, Levy, & Hutchison, 1993).
  • Immediate feedback: Letting students know they got it wrong right away is more important than letting them know they got it right. Practicing a skill incorrectly makes it harder to learn the correct way.
    • For example, have you ever called people by the wrong name, and they did not correct you until after you said it incorrectly a few times? What happened the next time you went to say their name? I bet you faltered because you first retrieved the incorrect name. To recall the correct name, you now must override your first response and work harder to remember their correct name. This happens every time we let students practice a skill incorrectly! We make it harder for them to learn the correct response.

We know reading is hard, it does not come naturally, it’s hard for many students to learn, and it takes hard work on the teacher’s part. The good news is we have universal screening tools to help us identify those students who are at risk and diagnostic tools to help us determine what to teach. We also know if we use our knowledge about the Science of Reading, we can help all students become readers.

Want to learn more about practical solutions for Tier 2? Watch the on-demand webinar with me and my colleagues, Carrie Thomas Beck from CORE and Monica Ng from Pivot, during which we will provide practical solutions for using data to intensify instruction in Tier 2.

Dr. Michelle Hosp is an Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a scientific advisor for KeyPhonics. Her research focus is on reading and MTSS/RTI in relation to CBM and CBE. Dr. Hosp has published numerous articles, book chapters, and books related to reading and effective decision making practices and is a member of CORE’s advisory board.


Gough, P.B., & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6–10.

Lemoine, H. E., Levy, B. A., & Hutchinson, A. (1993). Increase the naming speed of poor readers: Representations formed across repetitions. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 55(3), 297-328.

McKinsey and Company., (July, 2021). COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning. New York: McKinsey & Co.

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