The Early Reading Wars have essentially gone underground in many Canadian provinces and school districts. Since the appearance of Keith Stanovich’s acclaimed 2000 book, Progress in Understanding Reading, teaching reading by developing ” phonological awareness” and utilizing effective, synthetic phonics has been gaining significant ground among leading literacy researchers and education policy-makers. The term “Whole Language” was now been banished from the vocabulary of most faculty of education Language Arts instructors and curriculum consultants. Yet, more recently, just when it appeared that the Whole Language movement was in full retreat, the warmed-over strategy– retooled as the “balanced approach” —has reared its head, once again, in two provinces, British Columbia and Nova Scotia.
Two respected Canadian literacy researchers, Linda Siegel of the University of British Columbia and Jamie Metsala of Mount Saint Vincent University, have risen to the latest challenge. Both scholars are highly respected Special Education authorities, specializing in addressing student learning disabilities. Given the mounting evidence in support of effective, systematic instruction in phonological awareness and synthetic phonics, they are also troubled by why so many children still struggle in the area of reading.
The latest research report written by Jamie Metsala for the Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development (2012-07-25) provides an uncharacteristically blunt assessment.
“Unfortunately, in some school districts and provinces, the reading wars are still alive and well. In documents outlining provincial strategies for providing interventions to young children at risk for reading difficulties, explicit and direct instruction may not be mentioned or supported (e.g., B.C. Ministry of Education, 2010; N.S. Department of Education, 2011), and in practice may be strongly discouraged. This impedes teachers learning about, receiving professional development ion, and having access to research-based intervention programs and strategies.” (pp. 5-6)
Most reading difficulties can, and should, be prevented using research-proven effective classroom instruction and early intervention. Recent research has only buttressed claims that systematic, synthetic phonics strategies produce far better results for more students than the “balanced approach” back-stopped by the short-term Grade 1 intervention known as Reading Recovery.
So you can only imagine Dr. Siegel’s shock, back in June 2010, when the B.C. Department of Education posted, without warning, a draft policy document, Primary Program: A Guide for Teaching 2010, endorsing the “balanced approach” to literacy totally at odds with the research on best practice. She responded with a scorching letter to Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, and, since then, has been campaigning to correct the damage to special needs kids and especially those diagnosed with dyslexia.
The next jolt came from Nova Scotia. In 2010, Education Minister Ramona Jennex raised hopes by cancelling the $7 million province-wide Grade 1 Reading Recovery program and announcing that it would be replaced by a more affordable, comprehensive “home-grown” program covering Grades 1 to 3. Provincial advocates for effective, research-based literacy methods and interventions were skeptical in April 2011 when the Department unveiled the policy framework for Succeeding in Reading.
The Succeeding in Reading policy framework (April 26, 2011) confirmed the fears of Metsala, Halifax Region private tutoring providers, and many Special Education teachers. While Nova Scotia had abandoned Reading Recovery, the “balanced approach” found a new lease on life. The mandated Approach, as stated in the document, was to provide: “focused, developmentally appropriate instruction”; and “immersion in rich oral and text language and literacy experiences.” The only real changes were to identify struggling readers earlier, in Primary Class, to spread literacy instruction over three years, and to provide support in groups of up to 3 students.
A March 6, 2012 session on Succeeding in Reading held at Mount Saint Vincent University, featuring N.S. Provincial Curriculum Consultant Janet Porter, left many in stunned silence. It went over like a lead balloon. Most of the questioners poked holes in the generalized, fuzzy program description and a Frontier College official and two Halifax psychologists, seeing no reference whatsoever to “phonics,” demanded to know why it was missing from the document. Assurances that it was one of a number of possible approaches failed to mollify them or really satisfy anyone in the audience.
The initial results for the first cohort of Grade 1 students in 2011-12 did little to inspire confidence in Nova Scotia’s new program. Of the 806 Grade 1 students in the Halifax Regional School Board participating in the assessment, 44 per cent failed to meet the expected standard for achievement. Of those lagging students, 70 per cent were boys. The board’s French Immersion students did only marginally better, with 39% failing to make the standard, 61% of whom were boys. Under the new program, two out of five students entered grade 2 already struggling with reading deficits in the Atlantic region’s largest school system.
Those abysmal results not only made front page news in The Chronicle Herald (22 January 2013), but confirmed Dr. Jamie Metsala’s research findings. “Word recognition is the leading obstacle for young children learning to read and for disabled readers, “she reported, and “phonemic awareness deficits are one of the most frequent causes of these difficulties.” The root cause, Metsala pointed out, citing a 2008 JLD study, was “instruction that is either insufficient in its design or intensity for students at risk for reading disabilities.”
Why have the 2010 B.C. Ministry of Education and the 2011 N.S. Department of Education literacy programs been identified as fundamentally flawed in their approach? How have Ministry of Education consultants managed to implement “balanced” WL-based programs in defiance of the proven scientific research? When will research-based best practice be enshrined in policy documents, begin to reach classroom teachers and actually come to the rescue of children struggling with learning to read?