Why Ontario’s Right to Read Inquiry needs to expand its recommendations

The release of the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (OHRC) Right to Read Inquiry earlier this year calls for a rethink of early literacy education in Ontario.

The survey examined how Ontario schools are meeting the needs of students with reading disabilities. The report draws heavily on a body of research that has been called the “science of reading”, a body of study focused on learning phonics, word recognition skills, comprehension and vocabulary.

We applaud the report’s intention to ensure that students with reading disabilities, and all students, can access appropriate literacy instruction, as required by Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

But the body of research that informs its analysis, and therefore its recommendations, is too narrow.

The report’s call for Ontario to remove “all references to…pedagogical approaches to teaching foundational reading skills that have not been scientifically validated” also misleadingly asserts that current literacy programs Ontario are not evidence-based.

Background to the commission

It is important for school boards and teachers to go beyond the practices and teaching materials recommended by the OHRC so that classroom practices support literacy achievement for all students, including those with learning disabilities. reading.

The survey asks Ontario to review its approach to teaching reading.
(Allison Shelley/EDUimages), CC BY-NC

The report stems from a public survey that collected data from Ontario school boards, faculties of education, the Ministry of Education, parents and the general public. Consultations included Indigenous engagement at three Friendship Centers in Ontario and with representatives from an Inuit organization and the Métis Nation of Ontario.

The report notes that some of its limitations relate to the fact that student and parent surveys tend to come from people with higher income levels.

Although he “paid particular attention to the stories he received from vulnerable groups to better understand intersectional barriers,” a “relatively small number” of stories of experiences came from racialized students, First Nations students Nations, Métis and Inuit, and students whose first language learned was neither English nor French and those who were not born in Canada.

Findings and presentation

The report’s 157 recommendations focus on curriculum and instruction as well as early detection of reading disabilities.

It calls on school boards to “track students by learning disability subtype and to recognize dyslexia” and asks all boards to “collect demographic data on indicators of equity, including race, ethnicity, creed (religion), disability, gender identity, sexual orientation and social status”. -economic status.

It also discusses accommodations and asks for criteria for referring students with suspected reading disabilities for assessment to address risk of bias.

School boards should no longer “consider delaying assessment if the student’s first language is other than English or French and/or if the student is not fluent in one or the other of these languages.

Current program is evidence-based

The executive summary of the report acknowledges “that a comprehensive approach to early literacy recognizes that instruction which focuses on word reading skills, oral language development, vocabulary and knowledge development”.

The focus is exclusively on what the report calls “science-based” approaches to reading. We are concerned that people reading the report may not realize that Ontario’s current balanced literacy approach is evidence-based and recognizes phonemic awareness (the importance of noticing individual sounds in words) and other related elements as part of a complex teaching process. .

A balanced literacy approach draws on evidence from decades of empirical studies in socio-cultural literacy research that recognizes that language and the way we communicate is always rooted in our social and cultural circumstances. particular.

A group of children sitting in front of a wall of words.
Instruction in reading begins with making connections to what children know.
(Allison Shelley/EDUimages)

Interdependence of all aspects of literacy

Ontario teachers now follow a literacy program that recognizes the interconnectedness of all aspects of literacy. Instruction in reading begins with making connections to what children know and their cultural experience, igniting students’ curiosity to make sense of words and pictures. Sometimes it also involves direct and explicit teaching.

Socio-cultural research examining literacy shows how reading achievement depends on teachers drawing on a wide range of resources and knowledge to develop skills in oral communication, reading, writing, visualizing and representing their students.

Oral communication is essential for students’ thinking and learning as well as their social and emotional development. Talking with others introduces students to new ideas, vocabulary, and perspectives that they can use in their writing and help them understand what they read. Thus, oral communication primes students’ abilities to read and write effectively.

Writing (and representing ideas with pictures, sound, and print when using digital technology to create text) provides opportunities for students to apply what they know about print .

All aspects of literacy work together. If boards and teachers restricted their approaches to addressing the list of skills, knowledge, and referral protocols recommended by the OHRC, students would not have the essential foundational knowledge and experience to support their reading.

A child's hand is seen reaching for a book.
Children’s success in reading depends on teachers drawing on a wide range of resources and knowledge.

What it means to be literate

Research shows that writing provides opportunities for children to experiment and solidify their understanding of print that they may use when reading. Through teacher-led writing, children further develop phonological awareness (the ability to hear separate sounds in words in order to write and read them).

Socio-cultural research shows that becoming literate means being able to create and read various texts for various purposes, such as creating shopping lists or posters in play centers in kindergarten, or messages to members of the family at home.

Read more: To help children learn to read during the pandemic, encourage writing messages as part of the game

Children are highly motivated to learn to write and read when literacy activities in the classroom and at home involve real-life texts being played rather than those involving writing or reading words from a list.

Literacy from a socio-cultural perspective

The OHRC recommendations rightly emphasize that First Nations, Métis and Inuit students should “see themselves in the school system…” and that schools should “find ways to also incorporate the experiences, culture and values indigenous peoples in the content of the classroom”. This is especially important given the long history of marginalization of Indigenous ways of teaching and learning in schools, the lack of teaching materials that reflect Indigenous families and communities, and the paucity of research on learning literacy among Aboriginal children.

We note that extensive research on culturally appropriate teaching to engage socially and historically marginalized students, including racialized Black students and students who speak languages ​​other than English at home, is absent from the recommendations of the report.

This concerns us, since Ontario students bring diverse cultural and racialized knowledge and practices to their reading and writing, and many families are multilingual. Similarly, all students should be able to affirm their identity to “see themselves in the school system”.

A socio-cultural approach means that in addition to reading and speaking various texts, teachers encourage learners to draw on their own prior knowledge embedded in their main mother tongue. Students learn to use their multilingual skills, switching regularly from one language to another.

On behalf of promoting the literacy rights of all Ontario students, we call on the OHRC to expand its recommendations for teaching literacy in schools and professional preparation of teachers for the literacy teaching.

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