Hu­man rights com­mis­sion launches pub­lic in­quiry into read­ing lev­els in On­tario

The Peterborough Examiner - - CANADA & WORLD - MICHELLE MCQUIGGE

TORONTO — Trou­bling sta­tis­tics around lit­er­acy rates among On­tario el­e­men­tary school stu­dents have prompted a pub­lic in­quiry into is­sues af­fect­ing those with read­ing dis­abil­i­ties, the province’s hu­man rights watch­dog an­nounced Thurs­day.

The On­tario Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion said data from the province’s Ed­u­ca­tion Qual­ity and Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice sug­gest an alarm­ing num­ber of stu­dents are fall­ing short of read­ing stan­dards in el­e­men­tary school, set­ting them up for life­long strug­gles.

The Com­mis­sion said On­tario’s cur­ricu­lum is based on out­dated sci­ence and fails to prop­erly sup­port dis­abled stu­dents, which in turn de­prives them of a fun­da­men­tal skill.

“Learn­ing to read is not a thrill, it is not a priv­i­lege,” chief com­mis­sioner Renu Mand­hane said at a news con­fer­ence. “It is a ba­sic and es­sen­tial skill. Learn­ing to read is a hu­man right.”

On­tario’s Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quest for com­ment ei­ther on the in­quiry or the com­mis­sion’s com­ments on the state of the provin­cial cur­ricu­lum.

Mand­hane said the most re­cent data from the EQAO in­di­cate 25 per cent of On­tario’s Grade 3 stu­dents were fall­ing short of provin­cial read­ing stan­dards. For stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, the num­ber soared to 53 per cent. EQAO data in­di­cate those num­bers have been rel­a­tively static since 2016.

Stu­dents strug­gling to read are more likely to fall be­hind aca­dem­i­cally, fail to grad­u­ate or drop out al­to­gether, Mand­hane said. She said those with read­ing dis­abil­i­ties are also over-rep­re­sented in the home­less pop­u­la­tion and the jus­tice sys­tem.

Mand­hane said the “Right to Read” in­quiry will in­volve feed­back from ed­u­ca­tors, par­ents and stu­dents across the province.

While in­di­vid­u­als are en­cour­aged to share their ex­pe­ri­ences, the com­mis­sion is look­ing specif­i­cally at eight English-lan­guage school boards it says will of­fer a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ences in On­tario.

With help from for­mer Uni­ver­sity of British Columbia

ed­u­ca­tion re­searcher Linda Siegel, the com­mis­sion will as­sess those boards against five bench­marks. They in­clude whether the boards of­fer manda­tory early screen­ing for read­ing strug­gles, read­ing in­ter­ven­tion pro­grams and ef­fec­tive stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tions.

Those early sup­ports can make all the dif­fer­ence for stu­dents strug­gling with read­ing, ac­cord­ing to the in­com­ing pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Dyslexia As­so­ci­a­tion’s On­tario chap­ter.

Ali­cia Smith says she strug­gled through school in the 1980s and 1990s, and was even­tu­ally iden­ti­fied as dyslexic in high school.

Her on­go­ing strug­gles, and the sense of shame she felt about them, prompted her to with­draw from uni­ver­sity af­ter one year and pur­sue a culi­nary ca­reer that didn’t rely on lit­er­acy skills, she said.

She’s since watched the cy­cle re­peat with her son Mar­cus, who penned a let­ter to a provin­cial law­maker starkly lay­ing out the emo­tional im­pact of his own dif­fi­cul­ties in school.

“Some­times I wished I would just die so I could stop feel­ing so stupid,” the let­ter reads.

Smith said On­tario bucked in­ter­na­tional trends in read­ing ed­u­ca­tion when it re­vised its cur­ricu­lum in 2006, dou­bling down on ap­proaches that were be­ing aban­doned in coun­tries in­clud­ing the United King­dom, United States and Ire­land. That in­cluded mov­ing away from teach­ing skills such as print­ing, hand­writ­ing and phon­ics, she said — tools that helped her dur­ing her own time in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, but were not avail­able to her son.

She said she hopes the com­mis­sion’s in­quiry will pave the way for changes in the way read­ing is taught through­out the province.

“Ul­ti­mately I’d just like the cur­ricu­lum to be aligned with the sci­ence,” she said. “By adopt­ing a cur­ricu­lum that sup­ports the chil­dren that strug­gle, it ac­tu­ally helps every­one.”

Mand­hane said the com­mis­sion hopes to re­lease the re­sults of its in­quiry in 2020.

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