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Ontario to revamp approach to literacy after damning report released

A sign of the Ontario Human Rights Commission is seen at a news conference in Vaughan, Ont., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

Ontario says it will revamp its approach to literacy in schools after the Ontario Human Rights Commission called for change in a damning report.

The commission released its “Right to Read” report Monday after a public inquiry into human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities.

Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire says at least one-third of students graduate school without attaining the level of literacy that the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development deems necessary to function fully in today’s economy.

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The province says it will end the so-called “three-cuing system” – which encourages students to guess or predict words using cues or clues from the context and prior knowledge – and focus on phonics.

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Ontario also says it will provide a $25-million investment in evidence-based reading intervention programs, which the commission had called for.

The commission’s report says 26 per cent of all Grade 3 students and 19 per cent of all Grade 6 students were not meeting the provincial standard for reading in 2018-2019.

The report combines data analysis with the lived experience of students, parents and educators, providing more than 150 recommendations to improve literacy levels.

DeGuire said the province is not using evidence-based approaches to teach early reading, which has led to poor outcomes.

“As a result, students with reading disabilities and other students are failing to learn to read,” DeGuire said.

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The Progressive Conservative government blamed the previous Liberal government for the current curriculum, which was implemented in 2006.

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“Our government is committed to creating a highly literate workforce that gives young people the self-confidence and essential life and jobs skills they need to succeed,” Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said in a statement.

“Ontario is overhauling the language curriculum with a focus on phonics, investing in new reading supports for students, and hiring more specialized staff to help put our province and country on a strong footing to compete globally and thrive economically.”

The inquiry examined quantitative data about reading levels from the Education Quality and Accountability Office along with qualitative data from interviews of students, teachers and educators.

“Both the quantitative and qualitative data show more Ontario students are experiencing reading difficulties than should be,” the report said.

It said there are also problems with screening children when trying to identify reading issues.

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“The approach to screening students for reading difficulties is inconsistent and relies mostly on non-evidence-based reading assessments,” the report said.

A science-based approach to reading instruction would see about five per cent of students below grade-level expectations, the report noted.

The report said that in 2018-2019, 26 per cent of all Ontario Grade 3 students and 53 per cent of special education students did not meet the provincial standard.

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There is a slight improvement at Grade 6 in the same year, where 19 per cent of all students and 47 per cent of special education students did not meet the provincial standard.

The report recommends adopting a new curriculum for students from kindergarten to Grade 8 that “features direct and systematic instruction in foundational reading skills, and preparing current and future teachers on evidence-based approaches to teaching students to read.”

It also recommends screening every student twice a year from kindergarten to Grade 2 to identify reading issues.

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Another recommendation would see the province provide stable funding for reading intervention programs and make those programs easily accessible and equitable for all students.

DeGuire said learning to read “builds a lifelong sense of personal empowerment” and leads to better employment opportunities and enhances emotional and mental well-being.

Reading is a human right, she said.

“Students are not just being denied an equal right to read – their future, and the generations that follow, could be impacted,” DeGuire said.

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