Pandemic Pivots in Reach Every Reader

October 27, 2020

Like the rest of the world, the work of Reach Every Reader was highly disrupted by COVID-19, particularly with the widespread, rapid closure of schools. As it became clear that school closures would be extended and reading challenges would be exacerbated, we started asking ourselves how we could help address immediate needs while also moving forward with our longer-term work.

Our research designs were flexible and nimble from the start, which has made it easier to adjust multiple times to changing and unknown conditions. In response to the pandemic, we paused, pivoted, and invented–sometimes all in the same project! While COVID closures are impacting our work, they are also accelerating our move towards scale, and our decision-making continues to be guided by the principle of service–serve children, families, and educators + serve science. Our pivots fall into three categories: continue, pause, respond.

     1. Continuing Current Work

Continue was our first challenge–how could we continue our current work, including a longitudinal randomized control trial, a multi-year assessment development process, and an app study tested in homes? The short answer: by being clear about what we’re trying to learn, deploying different technologies to achieve the goals, adjusting research design and timeline as needed, tending to partnerships, and being sensitive to context. 

For example, we had planned to test our new pre-K app Small Wonders, produced in collaboration with WGBH, this summer by meeting with parents and children in person while they used the apps. Instead, we enlisted a research partner that could use remote techniques for collecting data. The timeline was only delayed a month, and the sample could be national instead of one geographic region. This shift had the silver lining of setting us up to learn from people in different contexts, which in turn will better support our launching the app with the aim of wide spread.

For things already underway, like item testing in four states for our K-2 screener, we had to get creative in a different way. We knew that even once students were back in school buildings, health precautions would make it unlikely that researchers would be allowed inside. Thus, we pivoted to a remote system for item testing, which required us to develop a platform for virtual assessment. We also cultivated a new partner, Florida Virtual School, which is the largest virtual school in the U.S., and we will be testing items this year with their students.

Our K-3 intervention, Model of Reading Engagement (MORE), was even more complicated because it was in use in classrooms and schools that shut down in mid-March. We shifted focus in an effort to support families and encourage student reading. We mailed over 32,000 books to students this summer, encouraged families to download our MORE Reading Fun app, and supported parents with resources in both English and Spanish. We paid attention to the fun factor during this difficult time, too, and included 1,400 jokes and riddles in our new summer content to encourage children to laugh and love language as part of reading. We also interviewed 50 teachers and 50 families to learn about their COVID-related challenges and engagement with MORE, which is directly impacting our design and content this academic year.

We are moving MORE entirely online for the 2020-21 school year and focusing on remote support for teachers. We will be studying the adaptations teachers make given their students and context, all of which is accelerating our readiness to scale MORE earlier than expected. 

Fortunately, one project required minimal adjustment because it was already set up for remote learning. In the spring, we piloted immersive experiences using Mursion technology in which teachers practice in a simulation environment with live actors playing the roles of students, with pauses for coaching and the opportunity to practice again. Because we were designing for scale from the beginning, actors and teachers were already in different geographic locations using the simulation technology. This school year, we are engaged in a broader study, and have had the happy challenge of more people wanting to participate than we can serve well right now. 

     2. Pausing Some Projects

So what did we need to pause? Remarkably, very little. We have two different smart speaker studies that explore the potential of using smart speaker technology as at-home reading supports for families. Both studies have been delayed due to COVID restrictions. One of those is delayed until we can be in a lab setting with participants since we will be simulating technology that doesn’t exist yet. The other study will soon be in the “continue” category, and has required a number of adjustments on our end, including more product development and figuring out how to build rapport with participants over Zoom. There are potential plusses to these adaptations, including opening a pathway for cross-country/global research and being less invasive for participants. 

     3. Responding with More Immediate Help 

Finally, there is the respond category of pivots. When we first wondered how we could help schools and families during the spring shutdowns, it wasn’t immediately obvious. We didn’t want to release our work in progress before we had finished testing efficacy, and (like everyone else), we didn’t have lots of extra bandwidth as our own team juggled all the complexities of families working and schooling from home, safely getting groceries, etc. While we explored several options, we ended up doing three new small projects that seemed like they had high impact potential with low resource investment. These are currently underway, with a focus on timeliness over polish: 

  • At-home assessments: We are developing and deploying two COVID-responsive assessment solutions for parents at home to quickly screen their child in K-3 for reading risk. English CBM at Home is out now and Spanish CBM at Home will be released in October.
  • COVID-slide calculator: We are also developing a “COVID-slide calculator,” which educators will be able to use to see the literacy learning changes due to COVID for their students. The calculator will be ready later this fall.
  • Audiobook project: We began an 8-week randomized control trial this summer with a goal of boosting children’s vocabulary and language skills through the use of audiobooks, which are a highly scalable technology. 

Serving People While Serving Science

Particularly in this time of stress and trauma for so many people, the principle of serving people has guided our decisions and designs about what to do and how to do it in a way that also serves science (which in turn sets us up to better serve more people in the future). For example, given the promising early results of MORE and the pressing need students in our partner district have for literacy support, we adjusted the research design to give all students in the study access to MORE (rather than half the students, as in earlier parts of the study). We adjusted the treatment to build from an earlier study on teacher implementation and adaptations. Similarly, in the audiobook study, we designed it so that all the children receive some potential benefit while we also learn something about reading support. The children who don’t get audiobooks in that study receive mindfulness training, which has been associated with improvements in children’s social–emotional wellbeing (particularly important during the pandemic), but is unlikely to have measurable effects on children’s reading comprehension performance. 

In the context of COVID closures, widespread protests for racial justice, and a presidential election, we expect new challenges and opportunities to emerge. We will continue to be guided by service, and we are ready to pivot as needed. 


Liz City headshot

Liz City is Executive Director of Reach Every Reader and Sr. Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.