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Return to School Post COVID-19: ELA, Literacy, and Mathematics

While federal language, including the language found in federal relief funding, uses the term learning loss, this term fails to recognize student learning that did occur in the context of COVID-19 and may make it difficult to recognize student strengths or to hold high expectations for each student. Therefore, we encourage use of the term unfinished learning when planning for a return to a more predictable learning environment post COVID-19.

Here are guidance and considerations to address unfinished ELA, literacy, and mathematics learning organized according to specific categories.

Strengths-Based Learning

Human beings are designed to make meaning from their experiences, so all students have learned new skills in the context of COVID-19, whether academic or non-academic: like problem-solving in the moment, navigating uncertainty, learning new technologies, and relying on the resiliency and strength of family and community. A child’s home language, family, and culture are all strengths to understand and build upon. Value the knowledge and abilities each learner brings to the classroom to cultivate a growth mindset and to help them see themselves as capable individuals. Understand who each child is with interest inventories or self-identifications of strengths and skills. Identify opportunities in instruction where learners need to apply skills such as problem-solving, persevering, navigating uncertainty, or others you have identified they possess and explicitly name them. Provide opportunities for each learner to have voice and choice, e.g., method of solving math problems, text to read, text to create, tools to use to engage in a task.

Formative Assessment to Identify Strengths

Identifying learner strengths and needs enables educators to design opportunities for students to apply and build on those strengths, and informs access points and instructional goals. Relying on a single data point creates a narrow and limited story of a student. Collect multiple artifacts of student learning and strengths, e.g., student interest inventories, exit tickets, quick fist-to-five gauges of understanding, educator observation and notes, and a student’s own reflections of successes and challenges. Find additional resources for formative assessment here.

Acceleration with Scaffolds and Supports

One way to address unfinished learning is by accelerating learning with scaffolds and supports. This means providing necessary instruction as needed in the context of or as part of grade-level instruction rather than dedicating a certain amount of time to providing instruction in previous grade-level content before engaging in the “real work” of the current grade-level. Utilize an instructional framework that allows for whole group, small group, and independent work time to allow for additional instruction tailored to student need. Use the principles of Universal Design for Learning and identify access points for each learner, share information in multiple ways, allow students to share their understandings in varied ways, and intentionally motivate and engage each learner. Design instruction to make cross-content connections. Provide detailed and descriptive feedback that provides each student with actionable next steps focused on the continuation of learning. In ELA and literacy, the design of the standards allows an educator to design scaffolds by asking students to do the work of the standard at a lower grade-level and increasing the complexity of the task until the child is doing grade-level work. In mathematics, opportunities exist for integrating previous-grade topics within relevant grade-level work in order to support students engaging deeply with grade-level mathematics. In addition, the Standards for Mathematical Practice provide opportunities across grade levels to accelerate learning since mathematical understanding is the intersection of these practices and mathematics content. Find additional resources for Universal Design for Learning here.

Elevating Learner and Family Voices

For some students, remote learning was a successful and positive experience. Some schools found ways to partner closely with families and communities during COVID-19. These are experiences that we can learn from to elevate learner and family voices to improve the educational experience. Beyond climate surveys, school and district leaders can conduct empathy interviews with students and families to hear their experiences around how school operated and other areas in life during COVID. Listen to stories to identify engagement and instructional practices that worked well for learners and families and communicate those to educators. School and district leaders should consider ways to redesign for stronger relationships, e.g. build connections to local community organizations, businesses, and teacher preparation programs. Consider intentionally redistributing resources to reflect the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on particular students, families, and communities. Invest in relationships. Allow for student voice and choice. Find more resources for engaging with families here.

Considerations for Remediation or Retention

Making a decision to remove a child from the grade-level learning environment with peers is a potentially life-changing event and must be carefully considered among the family, educators, school leaders, and where appropriate, the student. Comprehensive literature reviews regarding retention practices, such as Marsh, Gershwin, et al. (2009), show that retention does not benefit students' long term academic trajectory. Though a few studies have found short-term academic improvement in the years directly following the retention, the research generally finds negative relationships between retention and future academic achievement.

Instead, utilize an instructional framework that allows for whole group, small group, and independent work time to allow for additional instruction tailored to student need. Consider looping models or blended grade classrooms. Support educators with professional learning in evidence-based practices, universal design for learning, and designing scaffolds to support grade-level instruction. If pull-out intervention is used, school leaders should create opportunities for interventionists and classroom teachers to collaborate and plan for how learning that occurs in the intervention will be applied to grade-level content instruction.

Priority Instructional Content in ELA and Mathematics

Created in the context of COVID-19, this document explains and identifies Priority Instructional Content in ELA and Mathematics to address unfinished learning and meet students’ social and emotional needs. Understanding of priority content is developed through and by teaching all standards. Therefore, this document is not intended to replace the Wisconsin Standards for Mathematics or the Wisconsin Standards for English Language Arts, and is intended for short-term use to address unfinished learning, not as a permanent narrowing of curriculum.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Teaching involves developing the whole child, not only as proficient students but as empowered people - friends, colleagues, and citizens. Social-emotional learning has become a regular component of classrooms at all levels and has been especially important as part of the new and sometimes changing learning environments students have experienced during COVID-19. Within classrooms and schools, whether they are virtual, in-person or hybrid, priority must continue to be given to relationship building and a sense of community so students feel safe and are supported in engaging fully. Universal strategies promote the social and emotional competence, well-being, and development of all students. Find links to universal practices here. Find resources for specifically supporting comprehensive social and emotional learning opportunities for students here.

In mathematics it is helpful if there is a shift away from teaching mathematics to students and a move toward teaching students mathematics. This shift centers students as natural problem solvers. The Standards for Mathematical Practice specify that students solve real-world and mathematical problems by working effectively with peers; appreciate and critique arguments; and persevere through difficulty. As students internalize these mathematical practices, they engage in social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies. Find an unpacking of the connections among the mathematical practices and SEL competencies, as well as supports for integrating them in classroom instruction here.

Within literacy and English language arts, educators can support social emotional learning by attending to key shift 1 in Wisconsin’s Standards for English Language Arts, 2020: learning about and application of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language emphasizes recognizing, valuing, and sustaining students’ identities and the identities of others. This Wisconsin-specific shift emphasizes the unique opportunities that the discipline of English language arts provides to understand the human experience and one’s place within it. Instruction and instructional materials ensure that every learner meets or exceeds grade-level standards while also reflecting and valuing a multitude of identities. Find more information about this shift and what it can look like in classroom instruction in Appendix 1 of Wisconsin’s Standards for English Language Arts, 2020.

Content Specific Instructional Resources

For additional content specific instructional resources, see DPI’s grade-level, research-informed instructional practice guide for ELA here and for math here. Find professional learning and a self-evaluation tool to improve instruction in reading foundational skills here.

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