Too many children aren’t learning how to read at school, experts say

Cathy Dobson

The way children are taught to read at school isn’t working and needs to be replaced, two speech pathologists say.

“Let’s face it, if you can’t read and write life is significantly more difficult,” said Marianne Ward.

Marianne Ward

When kids don’t learn to read in Kindergarten to Grade 2 it affects their confidence, their mental health, they are bullied and often later drop out, she said.

Ward grew up in Sarnia and now co-owns a private speech and language clinic in Simcoe, Ont. with fellow speech pathologist Laura Downey.

The pair spoke last week to the Sarnia-Lambton Golden K Kiwanis Club about a scathing Ontario Human Rights Commission report that found Ontario’s approach to early reading is a failure.

“We know this is a hot topic… and this is our interpretation of what’s going on right now,” Downey said.

The OHRC inquiry found only about 60% of students are able to read and write using the current system, said Downey. That number likely fell during the pandemic, leaving perhaps half of all students struggling with literacy.

The report is “astounding,” Downey said. “The system is failing students, particularly those with reading disabilities because they are not using evidence-based practices.”

Laura Downey

Grade 3 EQAO tests show 26% of students have fallen behind in reading and writing. For students with special educational needs, the number jumped to 53%.

“The system needs to be fixed,” Downey said.  “Reading and writing should not be a privilege but a basic and essential human right.”

The crux of the problem is the balanced literacy approach currently used to teach reading in Ontario schools, according to the OHRC’s Right to Read report. Downey and Ward agree.

It’s an approach that uses cues and clues and other whole language beliefs not supported by science, according to the report. Cueing systems rely heavily on memorization and may not work with at-risk students, said Ward.

Children with dyslexia and other special education needs struggle with the guessing and predicting of text, which is fundamental to the cueing system.

It’s not effective because it doesn’t teach word reading skills that rely on learning phonics, said Ward.

“We need instruction that applies to all readers and that’s where structured literacy comes into play,” said Downey.

Structured literacy uses phonics and teaches the sounds of letters and letter combinations to encourage students to “sound-out” words.

The OHRC report contained more than 150 recommendations, including a return to structured literacy teaching. Studies show using phonics to teach reading is successful 95% of the time, compared to 60% for balanced literacy, the report said.

After the report was released three months ago Ontario’s Education Ministry promised to revamp its language curriculum to focus on word-reading instruction in the early grades.

The Right to Read inquiry was the first of its kind in Canada and based its findings on input from eight Ontario public school boards, all 13 English-language public faculties of education, the ministry and thousands of students, parents and educators.

Sarnia-Lambton Golden K has a long association with local literacy.  The club financially supports programs and members work with children on literacy skills through Literacy Lambton’s ‘Train Your Brain’ program.

The number of struggling young readers rose during the pandemic, said Literacy Lambton executive director Tracy Pound, who attended the zoom meeting with Ward and Downey.

Many parents are asking for help, and to meet the demand Literacy Lambton is launching a free summer program on July 6 called Reading Buddies, which matches adult volunteers with struggling readers.

Volunteers are needed to read with students in Grades 1-4, at the downtown library.  If interested, visit www.literacylambton.org.