Human-rights project hopes to get better bead on reading
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The Manitoba Human Rights Commission is on a mission to hear from as many people as possible who have faced challenges learning how to read or providing literacy instruction — be it at a local school, tutoring centre or kitchen table.
The commission launched a special project this fall that aims to document concerns about reading instruction with the goal of boosting overall literacy levels.
“What I’ve noticed is that my daughter is guessing words that are nowhere near the word (on the page), which is pretty surprising at this point. It’s kind of shocking there’s no sounding it out… We’ve been struggling,” said Tegann McNiven, a public school parent in Winnipeg.
The mother of two started doing research and raising the issue with educators and other families at her children’s elementary school. It turns out her Grade 2 student is, like many others in Manitoba, being taught to read via a controversial philosophy that has faced no shortage of criticism over the last year.
Balanced literacy has become dominant in schools in North America since roughly the turn of the century, but a growing number of researchers, teachers and advocates for students with learning disabilities have started speaking out about how it is failing pupils with formal diagnoses and none whatsoever.
A significant body of neuroscientific research on how children learn to read backs their concerns that a structured phonics comeback is overdue.
The winter release of Ontario’s Right to Ready inquiry — a project that inspired Manitoba’s related initiative — found schools in that province, which also embraces balanced literacy, don’t use evidence-based approaches to teach reading to students who have dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
“The best way to teach all students to read words is through direct, explicit, systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills,” the authors wrote.
In simple terms, there are two basic schools of thought on reading development.
Explicit phonics instruction stresses the importance of systematically teaching letter-sound associations, sound patterns and decoding words.
Proponents of balanced literacy and whole-language instruction typically believe reading is a skill that is naturally obtained if a child is exposed to lots of books. These philosophies promote memorization and context, including visual cues, to figure out unknown words and gradually introduce learners to more advanced texts.
“If it’s clear and evidence shows that there’s a population… missing out on effective reading instruction and therefore, become ineffective readers, then I don’t see the controversy,” said Valdine Bjornson, president of Manitoba Teachers for Students with Learning Disabilities. “In education, we always have to change and adjust based on the needs of our students.”
The new English Language Arts curriculum framework notes every learner has a different way of “‘seeing’ and processing.” There is no mention of the term phonics once in 134 pages.
Bjornson said a renewed emphasis on explicit instruction would benefit all students because it is good, science-backed pedagogy that works for everyone whereas it has become clear not all students can become literate through existing approaches that exclude phonics.
The number of elementary students who fail to meet Manitoba’s reading goals by Grade 3 has been consistently higher than the population of successful young readers over the last decade.
“Sometimes, we can be so entrenched in our systems that it can be hard to come out and take that bird’s eye view and say: ‘Well, is this really working? Do we need to rethink how we’re doing things?’” said commission executive director Karen Sharma, who oversees Right to Read Manitoba.
Sharma said she has heard from many parents with full-time teaching jobs who are afraid to share their concern about how reading is being taught because of how entrenched status quo practices are and the longstanding positioning of literacy challenges as individual problems rather than systemic ones.
The local human rights commission is undertaking a literature review and plans to publish a series of surveys for students, caregivers, teachers and other K-12 stakeholders in the coming weeks. A final report with recommendations for government officials is anticipated before 2024.
Jenna Molitowsky, a mother of three — the youngest of whom has dyslexia — is eager to participate.
Molitowsky said her family is fortunate they could afford to pursue a private assessment and register their daughter, who is now in Grade 4, for tutoring when they realized she was having trouble at school.
“I don’t know what would happen to my daughter and how she would fall through the cracks if I wasn’t able to do that,” she said, noting it takes a severe toll on one’s confidence and well-being if they struggle to read and spell while they see their peers thriving.
As far as Molitowsky is concerned, assessments and interventions need to be available in schools and there should be widespread professional development on learning disabilities so teachers know how to help all pupils grasp reading.
The Manitoba Reading Association’s spokeswoman echoed those comments.
“Accommodations and modifications can’t take the place of interventions,” said association president Stacey Bradley.
“We can support children’s learning by giving them audio books, but audio books don’t take away the need for children to still be able to decode text. We do kids a disservice if we don’t get to the real problem of why they struggle to read.”
Updated on Monday, November 21, 2022 9:20 AM CST: Adds photo