Archive for September, 2022


Speaking at the  researchED National Conference on Saturday September 3 in London, UK, New Brunswick’s Minister of Education Dominic Cardy provided the scoop on how it happened. A full-year before the April 2022 release of the Ontario Right to Read Inquiry report his province got the jump on Ontario and pioneered in the adoption of the Science of Reading (SoR) and the shift to “structured literacy.” His presentation, “Literacy in New Brunswick: successes and lessons learned,” filled-in the blanks.

What was truly remarkable about Minister Cardy’s researchED talk was how candid he was about the “literacy crisis” and what he famously described as “the biggest scandal in education over the past fifty years.” While the Minister refrained from repeating his controversial ‘biggest scandal’ declaration, he left no doubt that he continues to hold that view. Challenging the prevailing orthodoxy in the form of “balanced literacy,” he acknowledged raised hackles and was not without its risks. 

            After being appointed Education Minister four years ago, Cardy realized that early reading was a serious and largely unacknowledged problem in the system.  “We didn’t have politicians asking the right questions,” he said. “They left it to the experts and assumed that they knew best how to teach kids to read.” When questions were asked, he found most were posed in relation to what other provinces were doing, and most notably Ontario.

            Digging deeper, Cardy reported that a clearer pattern emerged.  Virtually everyone in the N.B. system was enthralled with “balanced literacy” even though one-third to one-half of all students were unable to read properly by the end of grade 3. School districts were totally dependent upon one particular program, Fountas & Pinnell, for not only resources but assessment tools. While the ‘science of reading’ was gaining ground and being employed in private tutoring centres, evidence-based practices had not penetrated the system. “None of the province’s faculties of education,” he said, “recognized the problem either.” 

            Cardy did not come to this realization himself.  Julia Smith, an early reading specialist based in Fredericton had a major influence upon his thinking.  She joined him in the researchED presentation and tackled some of the technical questions related to the specific reforms.

            “Some 56 per cent of New Brunswickers are at the lowest literacy level,” Cardy stated, and “it starts in the schools.”  “We have public schools,” he added, “that have outsourced the problem to parents.” What that means is that those who are well-off either move their kids to private, alternative schools or enroll their children in after-school tutoring programs. 

            Simply surrounding kids with books may work for some children, but Cardy insists that “most do not magically learn to read.”  Drawing upon his own experience as a flying instructor, he finds it preposterous to think this way. “Few would train pilots by letting them teach themselves,” he told the audience.

After convincing the education department to take the plunge, Cardy turned to winning over the cabinet. He made good use of a few vignettes snapped up from real-life classrooms to illustrate how elementary kids were guessing what words meant and unable to read by sounding-out the words or reading with much comprehension.  Learning that students were routinely guessing “pony” for “horse” did the trick.  

            Cardy’s early literacy reforms were piloted in a small number of elementary schools last year. The initial results, according to Smith, were impressive in terms of improved reading fluency and comprehension. “Literacy rates in the pilot schools went up by 90 per cent,” Cardy reported, and success bred success. “The teachers tried it, it worked, and – much to our amazement – began sharing it amongst themselves.”

            All of this may explain the Minister’s rather peculiar response to the September 2022 release of the latest 2021-22 provincial student assessment results. While the results showed a drop in some English literacy and francophone math success rates, nothing was reported on mathematics so numeracy remains a question mark.

“I’m not horribly disappointed,” he told CBC News, “given that we were expecting pretty steep drops because of the huge interruptions in learning we’ve seen over the last couple of years with months of school cancelled and being online and back and forth.” What he didn’t say was that all was not lost for the early literacy reforms were still awaiting fuller implementation.

            Minister Cardy is truly unique in provincial politics and passionate in his defense of democracy anywhere in the world. His personal campaign to tackle early literacy is really an extension of that fierce commitment.  Right at the outset of his London talk, Cardy provided an insight into what drives him in his recent quest to improve early literacy. “Those who cannot read are at a lifetime disadvantage,” he stated. They are also, he claimed, more susceptible to “social media manipulation’ which, in his estimation, “can be damaging to democracy.”

*Adapted from an earlier version published in the Telegraph-Journal, 23 September 2022.

How did the Maritime province of New Brunswick get the jump on implementing evidence-based early literacy reform? How important is political will in a province/state and determined leadership in the system?  Why were provincial faculties of education so resistant to the Science of Reading (SoR)?  What will it take to successfully implement and embed the changes?

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