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Two boys are seen lying on the ground looking at a book.
If teachers were to only address the skills, knowledge and referral protocols that Ontario’s Human Rights Commission recommends, students wouldn’t have essential knowledge to support their reading. (Shutterstock)

Why Ontario’s ‘Right to Read Inquiry’ needs to broaden its recommendations

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

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

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

But the body of research which informs its analysis, and thus, its recommendations, is too narrow.

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

Background to the commission

It is important that boards and teachers go beyond the OHRC’s recommended teaching practices and materials so that classroom practices will support the literacy success of all students including those with reading disabilities.

A teacher is seen beside a boy; they look at text.
The inquiry calls for Ontario to overhaul its approach to teaching reading. (Allison Shelley/EDUimages), CC BY-NC

The report stems from a public inquiry 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 Ontario Friendship Centres, and with representatives of an Inuit organization and of the Métis Nation of Ontario.

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

Although it “has paid special attention to the accounts it did receive from vulnerable groups to better understand intersectional barriers,” a “relatively low number” of accounts of experiences came from racialized students, First Nation, Métis and Inuit students, and students whose first language learned was not English or French and those not born in Canada.

Findings and presentation

The report’s 157 recommendations relate to curriculum and instruction as well as early screening for reading disabilities.

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

It also addresses accommodations and calls for criteria for referring students with suspected reading disabilities for assessment to account for the risk of bias.

No longer should school boards “consider delaying assessment if the pupil’s first language is other than English or French and/or the pupil lacks facility in either of these languages.”

Current curriculum is evidence-based

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

There is an exclusive emphasis on what the report calls “science-based” approaches to reading. Our concern is that people who read the report may not realize Ontario’s current balanced literacy approach is evidence-based, and does recognize phonemic awareness (the importance of noticing the individual sounds in words) and other related elements as one piece of a complex teaching process.

A balanced literacy approach draws on evidence from decades of empirical studies done in sociocultural literacy research that recognizes language and how we communicate is always rooted in our particular social and cultural situation.

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

Interconnectedness of all aspects of literacy

Ontario teachers now follow a literacy curriculum that recognizes the interconnectedness of all aspects of literacy. Teaching reading begins with making connections to what children know and to their cultural experience, piquing students’ curiosity in making sense of the words and images. At times, it also involves direct, explicit instruction.

Sociocultural research examining literacy shows how reading achievement depends on teachers drawing on a wide range of resources and knowledge to develop their students’ oral communication, reading, writing, viewing and representing abilities.

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

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

All aspects of literacy work with one another. If boards and teachers were to restrict their approaches to addressing the list of skills, knowledge and referral protocols that the OHRC recommends, students would not have essential background knowledge and experience to support their reading.

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

What being literate means

Research shows that writing provides opportunities for children to experiment with and consolidate understandings about print that they can use when they read. Through writing with teacher guidance, children further develop their phonological awareness (ability to hear separate sounds in words in order to write and read them).

Sociocultural research shows that becoming literate means being able to create and read diverse texts for a range of purposes, such as creating grocery lists or posters at play centres in kindergarten, or messages to family members at home.

Read more: To help children learn how to read in the pandemic, encourage writing messages as part of play

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

Literacy from sociocultural perspective

The OHRC’s recommendations rightfully note that First Nations, Métis and Inuit students should “see themselves in the school system …” and that schools should “find ways to also incorporate Indigenous experiences, culture and values throughout classroom content.” 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 scarcity of research on Indigenous children’s literacy learning.

We note that the extensive research on culturally responsive teaching for engaging socially and historically marginalized students, including racialized Black students and students who speak languages other than English at home is absent in the report’s recommendations.

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

A sociocultural approach means that along with reading and talking about various texts, teachers encourage learners to tap into their own prior knowledge embedded in their primary home language. Students learn to use their multilingual abilities, shifting regularly between languages.

In the name of advancing the literacy rights of all Ontario students, we call on the OHRC to broaden its recommendations for school literacy teaching and the professional preparation of teachers to teach literacy.

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