The focus of International Literacy Day (ILD 2021) this year comes as no surprise: examining the unfolding impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on literacy outcomes and recovery from interrupted instruction, and exploring what that means for the future of literacy instruction.

International Literacy Day

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is taking a deeper dive into the alternatives used to ensure the continuity of learning—including a mix of in-person, virtual, and hybrid instruction—and the role both technological access and literacy play in the success of those alternatives. 

When schools made the difficult (but necessary) decision to go to distance learning, IMSE also had to reinvent our literacy solutions to fit the needs of teachers. We switched from in-person-only training to live, virtual training through Zoom. We created and provided digital materials to help teachers implement IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham virtually. We offered workshops and videos showing teachers how to teach Orton-Gillingham from a computer

IMSE believes that professional learning should be engaging, interactive, and practical. When we were faced with lockdowns, like thousands of districts and across the nation, we acted quickly and worked hard to maintain the quality and interactivity that our teachers expect but through distance learning. Still, research shows lower achievement in reading overall compared to a typical school year. So, in the aftermath of interrupted instruction and a pandemic with no end in sight, what can schools do to help teachers and students regain lost ground in literacy?


The Importance of Literacy Instruction


As we know, literacy is essential for learning in all areas. With interrupted instruction during the pandemic and an incredibly fast pivot to distance learning, there was a greater divide among students in terms of engagement, connectivity, and access to proper equipment. Schools around the country took incredible steps to lessen the divide by providing internet access and laptops to students who were not previously equipped for online learning. Teachers went above and beyond to keep students engaged in learning. Parents also became teachers and helped their children in every way possible. 

However, even with these amazing responses, schools will still need to regain some lost ground. They can do this by first using a research-based literacy screener for all students, especially in grades K-6. Acadience Learning (formerly known as DIBELS) is a free option that schools can download. The assessments are highly predictive of future reading success, and it will help identify which students may need additional instruction. 

Secondly, committing to a research-based structured literacy program, especially for grades K-2 and beginning readers who are still working on foundational skills, is essential. A structured literacy program, like IMSE, is explicit, sequential, and systematic. It focuses on the five essential components to teaching reading: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. 

More Reading: What is Structured Literacy?


The pandemic also highlighted the fundamental role literacy plays in all aspects of a child’s life. UNESCO’s theme for ILD 2021 is ‘narrowing the digital divide’ because of the applications of literacy beyond reading alone: technological literacy and the ability to evaluate and make decisions in challenging situations are functions of literacy as a civil right.

Even before the pandemic, this right was in jeopardy: a 2019 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 34% of fourth graders could read at or above a proficient level. Even more startling are statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice linking incarceration and illiteracy, with an astonishing 70% of incarcerated adults unable to read above a fourth-grade level.**

As educators, we have a responsibility to our children to teach them how to read—their lives depend on it. The weight of that responsibility is felt by teachers across the nation.


Recovering from Interrupted Instruction


Like falling dominos, lost ground in literacy can have a tremendous impact—but there are solutions. Increased student learning is always at the center of any district’s focus, and this can be accomplished through collaboration, support, and empowerment to implement needed changes. 

Teachers are schools’ most important resource. 

Teacher knowledge is imperative to student success. Districts and schools can actively listen to the needs of their teachers by working collaboratively to problem-solve issues at a systemic level. Supporting teachers by encouraging them to receive professional development in the area of structured literacy will dovetail into student success, and using professional learning communities to support the implementation of a literacy program is also beneficial. 

Teachers should look for professional development in literacy instruction that is founded in the Science of Reading, focuses on explicit instruction, and is practical. In other words, teachers should be able to immediately implement what they have learned when they go back into the classroom. This also means that there should be ongoing support offered after their training. This might include coaching, consultations, practicum, or refreshers.

Learn More: Proven Structured Literacy Training from Expert Instructors


Finding the right curriculum is key. 

To ensure that literacy instruction is consistent across the board, especially when a new program is put into place, the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) offers research on an Innovation Configuration Map to identify critical components of instruction.*** Collaborative teams that include teachers and administrators meet to clearly identify the vision and ensure there is an action plan of implementation. 

The Florida Center for Reading Research recommends that you ask these questions when searching for a core curriculum:* 

  1. Are all five components (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and language comprehension) from the 2000 National Reading Panel report present and prominent? 
  2. Is instruction within each component explicit and systematic? 
  3. Is the sequence for concept and skill development organized sequentially? 
  4. Is student material coordinated with the teacher’s guide?
  5. Is instruction across components clearly linked?

More than anything, you want to find a core literacy curriculum that is founded in solid Science of Reading research. Look for usage of research from Moats, Ehri, Seidenberg, Adams, Gough, Tunmer, Scarborough, Fletcher, Kilpatrick, and other respected researchers. 

Learn More: Orton-Gillingham Multisensory Activities


While there are no easy fixes to the havoc wrought on schools by the pandemic, district leaders and administrators can use this experience as an opportunity to improve their schools’ literacy instruction. They can implement programs that ensure consistency and develop professional development plans that support teachers and help them build confidence. Regaining lost ground in literacy is possible—but it requires comprehensive literacy instruction solutions.



*Foorman, B. R. (2007). Primary prevention in classroom reading instruction. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(5), 24-30. doi:10.1177/004005990703900504 

**Harlow, C. W. (2003). Education and correctional populations. Bureau of Justice. 

***Hord, S., Rutherford, W., Huling, L., and Hall, G. (2006). Taking charge of change. SEDL.


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