Archive for the ‘Early Reading Instruction’ Category

The worst kept educational secret is leaking out: most Canadian K-12 students in all provinces suffered setbacks during the Pandemic.  The latest province to report on the decline in student test scores is Nova Scotia, a middling Canadian province widely considered a bell weather for national trends. Right on forecast, that province’s students performed dismally on the latest 2021-22 battery of results.  Alarming student test score numbers in reading, writing and mathematics generated considerable media attention, but it remains to be seen whether they will light a fire under the gatekeepers of the provincial schoolhouse.

One in three Grade 3 students (32 per cent) cannot read with comprehension, and half of those students cannot write properly. It doesn’t get better by Grade 6 in reading or mathematics.  Two out of five in Grade 10 fail to meet acceptable standards in mathematics. This is not new at all, just worse because of school shutdowns, periodic interruptions, and absenteeism.

Signs of flagging student progress are everywhere in that province’s classrooms. Students are still guessing at words while reading in the early grades. Most elementary kids are rarely asked to write more than a sentence or two. Left on their own to master mathematics, students’ skills have eroded to an alarming degree. Getting kids to turn off their cellphones saps a lot of energy.

Confronting the hard data on the downward spiral, Education Minister Becky Druhan and the Department were quick to blame the pandemic.  Abysmal post-COVID student test scores were posted, the pandemic was offered up as the explanation, and –two days later — a reactive plan materialized out of thin air.

The “education crisis” escape plan was thrown-together in reaction mode. Provincial education officials must have been banking on no one bothering to look any deeper, track student data trends, or question why the department is still entrusted with evaluating its own effectiveness in teaching, learning and curriculum

Reading and writing skills have actually been in steady decline for a decade or more. Some 68 per cent of Grade 3 students in 2021-22 met minimum standards in Reading, down 8 points from 76 per cent in 2012-13. Student writing standards in Grade 3 have deteriorated significantly in all aspects of writing proficiency (Ideas – from 88% to 50%; Organization -from 80% to 38%; Language Use – from 83% to 43%; and Conventions – from 71% to 32%). Two out of three Grade 3s are familiar with Snapchat but exhibit little proficiency in  grammar or spelling and most can barely write a complete sentence.

Student proficiency by Grade 6 is critical because, as the recent October 2022 World Bank report on Pandemic Global Learning Loss claimed, students unable to read by 10 years-of-age are considered to be living in “learning poverty.” Until recently, that problem seemed far removed from the lives of Nova Scotian and Canadian children.

Six out of 10 kids in the world’s low-income and middle-income countries are now classified as “learning poor” putting their future in jeopardy and their lives at risk. In Canada, the World Bank estimates that from 4.3 to 8.3 per cent of 10 year olds in Canada qualify as “learning poor.” It’s much higher in Nova Scotia, where 29 per cent of our 10-year-olds (in Grade 6) lack basic proficiency in reading.

Math standards tend to fly below the radar in Nova Scotia, and the Education Department is culpable. Thirty per cent of Grade 3s lack proficiency in math skills, but it’s impossible to track past trends.  Shifting the tests from Grade 3 to Grade 4 and back again since 2011-12 deprived us of comparable data. It’s not as concealed in Grade 6 where student scores have dropped from 73 per cent (2012-13) to 64 per cent a year ago. One third of Grade 6s fall below provincial math standards.

Buried in the latest batch of published results are “disaggregated” student test results for two groups of students, those of African heritage and Indigenous ancestry.  That reflects the department’s recent focus on supporting students and improving results among those in racialized and marginalized communities.

While it’s been a major priority, the pandemic disruption has wiped out previous gains. Grade 3 Reading scores for African students held firm at 57 per cent meeting standards, some 12 per cent below the provincial average score. Writing remains a serious problem with fewer than half of the cohort of 695 students meeting expectations. A similar sized cohort of Mi’kmaw/Indigenous students in Grade 3 suffered similar setbacks during the pandemic.  In high school, African and Indigenous students at Grade 10 level performed far better in Reading than in Mathematics, where both cohorts of students have lost significant ground in comparison with their peers.

So far, Druhan and her Department have fumbled the ball during the pandemic disruption.  Cancelling school for 22 weeks between March 2020 and June 2021 put students and teachers in a much-weakened position. Since then, provincial authorities have been essentially asleep, waiting – it now appears – for hard evidence that students, at every grade level, are far behind in their progress and poorly prepared to progress to the next level.

Nowhere is the Education department’s ‘muddle-through’ mentality better exemplified than in in its slow-footed, ad hoc response to the deepening literacy crisis. After ignoring the Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read report upon its release, Druhan and her officials finally – six months later– produced a “Six Pillars” framework for discussion in June of last school year. The document endorsing ‘structured literacy’ was issued, but implementation was voluntary and earmarked for a number of “pilot schools.”

Provincial literacy experts were taken-aback when the “Six Pillars” framework surfaced again, in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous scores. Conventional reading and writing strategies, including “balanced or levelled literacy” and “Reading Recovery” remain in place, even though they were rejected months ago in Ontario and other provinces. The just-announced “new plan” for Grade 2 literacy is nothing of the sort. After keeping the “Six Pillars” under wraps, it’s just now being introduced to teachers, delaying implementation for another full year.

Establishing a Nova Scotia Student Progress Assessment agency is now mission-critical in Primary to Grade 12 education. Learning erosion has worsened since January 2018 when Dr. Avis Glaze recommended creating such an agency reporting to the public, not the department. Delaying the release of student test data, resisting evidence-based policy making, and denying the pandemic’s impact may be the last straw. The department should not be entrusted with evaluating the success of its own policies, curriculum and practices. It’s high time for more public accountability and action plans informed by the best evidence gathered through student assessment.

Why are education authorities blaming the “learning erosion” on the Pandemic disruption and treating it as an aberration? How representative is Nova Scotia, where literacy and mathematics skills have been in decline for a decade or more?  What is the point of establishing ‘learning outcomes’ without implementing changes which might enable teachers to come closer to meeting those student achievement benchmarks? Is the irregular and uneven response to the Ontario Right to Read inquiry findings symptomatic of broader concerns?

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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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Three weeks ago, the earth shook in Ontario and sent reverberations across the Canadian system of education. The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that children had “the right to read” and were being denied it in that province’s schools. Most “learning disabilities” labels were actually the result of reading failures, the latest OHRC inquiry found. And most tellingly, students from disadvantaged communities were the most likely to bear the brunt of ineffective reading instruction in elementary schools.

Thousands of Ontario parents with children struggling to read have now broken the silence. Over the past two years, they came forward, sometimes with their kids, to provide heart-wrenching personal testimonies about how current early reading programs have failed them. On February 28, 2022, that Commission, headed by Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire and backed by the latest evidence-based research, simply demolished prevailing methodologies and programs which left far too many kids unable to read to a level of functional literacy.

An estimated nine out of ten children are capable of learning to read when provided with the proper instruction. That factoid, generated by International Dyslexia Association (IDA Ontario) research, was confirmed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The fundamental problem is that one-third of our youngest students, the vast majority enrolled in so-called “balanced literacy” programs, simply cannot read with the fluency needed in today’s world.

Starting in October 2019, the Right to Read inquiry looked at a representative cross-section of eight English language school boards, including Peel District School Board and Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and all 13 English-language faculties of education and Ministry of Education sanctioned curriculum. In addition to listening to a multitude of concerned parents, the inquiry tapped into the research expertise of leading learning disabilities researchers, including Linda Seigel of the University of British Columbia and Jamie Metsala of Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University.

While Chief Commissioner DeGuire refrained from pointing fingers, it was clear that current early reading methods were not working and the commission got a “mixed response” from education faculties regarding the findings. That’s no surprise because most faculties provide little if any preparation informed by the science of reading and model curricula based upon the ‘balanced literacy’ dogma peddled by the dominant learning resource providers.


When one-out-of-three students graduate without reaching provincial or international standards, someone, somewhere, has to assume responsibility for the outcomes. Vulnerable students – those from impoverished and marginalized communities – were already struggling before the two-year-long pandemic school disruptions. OHRC’s legal counsel Reema Kawaja said it best: “No child should go to school for 14 years and not learn to read.”

Current reading instruction methods are deeply entrenched and their defenders have succeeded, for three decades, in sinking periodic assaults on that hegemony. Generations of elementary teachers have stayed the course, rebranding ‘whole language,’ applying the reading recovery band-aid, and fuzzing up the whole question with ‘balanced literacy’ providing continued cover for those same methods.

This transition has been facilitated and enabled by Canada’s faculties of education where teachers are introduced to literacy programs and inculcated in provincially-sanctioned texts and learning materials, exemplified by Fountas & Pinnell, North America’s largest purveyor of ‘balanced literacy’ learning resources, teacher training, and classroom assessment tools.

New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy was one of the first off-the-mark in reacting to the Right To Read findings. With news of the earth-shaking February 28 Ontario report breaking, he took to Twitter with another impossible-to-ignore and quotable declaration heard across the K-12 education world.

“Our approach to reading instruction was a disgrace,” Cardy tweeted. “We gave teachers a job and didn’t give them the tools to do it. For me, this is the biggest education scandal of the last fifty years.” Just in case you thought Minister Cardy was simply blowing-off steam, he repeated his claim for Brunswick News in much greater detail.

Minister Cardy and his Department were one of the first to wade into the latest iteration of the ‘reading wars.”  “It’s crazy,” he told Brunswick News. “[There are] two camps. One is based upon reality, and one is not. And for a long time, we followed the one that is not based upon reality.”  Like the thousands of Ontario parents, Cardy challenges the prevailing theory that “if you surround [children] with lots of books, they will learn how to read.”

The Right to Read inquiry report may well tip the balance and, it should be noted, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce was quick to endorse the report and its 157 recommendations for change The most critical of those is Recommendation 30 which fully embraces systematic reading strategies, including phonics, and rejects the still popular ‘three-cue’ guess-the-word methodology.

What is astounding is that the OHRC actually spelled-out in detail the key requirements to successfully teach and support all students:

“ Curriculum and instruction that reflects the scientific research on the best approaches to teach word reading. This includes explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, which teaches grapheme to phoneme (letter-sound) relationships and using these to decode and spell words, and word-reading accuracy and fluency. It is critical to adequately prepare and support teachers to deliver this instruction.

Early screening of all students using common, standardized evidence-based screening assessments twice a year from kindergarten to Grade 2, to identify students at risk for reading difficulties for immediate, early, tiered interventions.

Reading interventions that are early, evidence-based, fully implemented and closely monitored and available to ALL students who need them, and ongoing interventions for all readers with word reading difficulties.

Accommodations (and modifications to curriculum expectations) should not be used as a substitute for teaching students to read. Accommodations should always be provided along with evidence-based curriculum and reading interventions. When students need accommodations (for example, assistive technology), they should be timely, consistent, effective and supported in the classroom.

Professional [Psycho-educational] assessments, should be timely and based on clear, transparent, written criteria that focus on the student’s response to intervention. Criteria and requirements for professional assessments should account for the risk of bias for students who are culturally or linguistically diverse, racialized, who identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, or come from less economically privileged backgrounds. Professional assessments should never be required for interventions or accommodations.”

The OHRC inquiry report provides plenty of sound research and detailed policy guidance for Ontario, New Brunswick, and other provinces . By the end of next year, 2022-23, the New Brunswick version will be in place in Kindergarten to Grade 2.  It’s already being implemented in a few Ontario pilot schools, including those in the York Region Catholic Distract School Board, north of Toronto, and the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board was the first to commit to acting on the OHRC recommendations.

Tackling the problem will not be easy because prevailing ‘balanced literacy’ approaches are deeply entrenched in most faculties of education.  One of the first to cast a stone was Shelley Stagg Peterson, professor of literacy at OISE/University of Toronto, and , since then, Brock University professor Diane Collier, who represents a group of literacy researchers from nine different education faculties Ontario.

“Reading English is not phonetical; it is visual,” Stagg Peterson wrote in an Ottawa Citizen Letter to the Editor. “If a child has a good visual memory, he or she will be able to read anything they can understand by the end of grade one.”  Then came a couple of astounding statements: “Poor readers can have wonderful careers in many fields. Phonics is a useful tool in learning to read but it is not a method.”

Education faculty literacy professors have rallied in defense of the dominant pedagogy and mandated resources.  “There is no one-size-fits-all for reading,” Professor Collier told CBC News. “A highly systematized, step-by-step approach is not necessarily accessible for all students who have all kinds of needs, so it could further marginalize readers.” Their counter-strategy is clear – paint the Right To Read findings as an endorsement of “phonics” and attack it as advocating a “narrow” approach, sidestepping the findings and the ineffectiveness of current methods.

The Ontario Right To Read inquiry report put existing literacy programs on notice but their defenders, ensconced in the education faculties, are not about to yield or give ground when learning resource alliances and training contracts are at stake. Reading reformers now know that it’s going to be a long siege and will require vigilance throughout the implementation process.

Will the Right to Reading Inquiry tip the balance in the ongoing “Reading Wars”?   What’s entirely different about this latest phase in the struggle to introduce the Science of Reading into classroom practice? What role do giant learning resource publishers and consultants play in perpetuating the status quo in the form of ‘balanced literacy’?  Will provincial learning consultants and education professors recover and succeed in gaining control of curriculum reform implementation?

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Rising children’s reading scores in Ontario may well be an illusion.  Early literacy rates as measured on Ontario standardized test have, we now know, been inflated by the use of Assistive Technology (AT).  That was the biggest revelation contained in a ground-breaking September 2021 report, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, produced by the Ontario branch of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA/Ontario).

“There are so many students struggling to read whose experiences are being hidden right now,” says Alicia Smith, president of IDA Ontario. “Our goal in producing this report is to bring attention to the depth of the real issues. These are being swept under the carpet.”

Ontario’s provincial student assessment agency, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), has produced some problematic data. Between 2005 and 2019, the EQAO reported a steady increase in reading scores for students in grades 3 and 6.  On the Grade 3 test, the proportion of students meeting the provincial standard reportedly jumped from 59 to 74 per cent, a 15-point gain in the prime indicator of literacy.

What the EQAO did not publicly disclose was that increasing numbers of students were being provided with ‘accommodations’ such as AT when writing the test, which most likely inflated the numbers. Nearly one in five students (18 per cent) utilized AT to complete the EQAO assessment in 2019, up from 3 per cent back in 2005.

Assistive technology is now commonplace in Canadian schools, widely used to diagnose reading difficulties and to provide computer-assisted help with reading. During provincial tests, students with diagnosed reading difficulties are now routinely allowed to either listen to an audio version of the text and comprehension questions.  In many cases, they are accommodated by having adults, either a teacher or a volunteer, who is permitted to write down the student’s verbal response.

Gains in Ontario early reading scores shriveled up almost entirely when the use of assistive technology was factored into presenting the actual results. Whereas 56 per cent of students met the standard without the use of assistive technology in 2005, the figure was only marginally higher at 62 per cent in 2019.

Reported pass rates for the Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) have also been flagged as a cause for concern. While the EQAO reports that the percent of successful ‘first time eligible’ students has hovered between 80 and 82 per cent, the non-participation rate has more than doubled, rising from 8.4 per cent in 2005 to 19 per cent in 2019. Little is known about students who do not write the OSSLT, but Toronto District School Board data reveals that two-thirds (65 per cent) of students who do not participate in the OSSLT do not end up applying for post-secondary education.


When provided with appropriate early instruction, an estimated 95 per cent of all students are cognitively capable of learning to read. In, Ontario and every other Canadian province, the IDA and many reading experts see a large gap between childrens’ human potential and current reading outcomes.

Experienced literacy experts and tutors have seen it all over the years.  “It’s a complete joke,” says Jo-Anne Gross, founder of Toronto-based Remediation Plus. “Most of the kids diagnosed and coded don’t have learning disabilities. They just don’t know how to read.”  Gross applauds IDA Ontario for exposing the hidden problem. “The authenticity of the reading scores is sadly lacking,” she claims, “and the public has a right to full disclosure.”

Ontario parent David Logan, a Kingston father of a Grade 5 son struggling with reading, told CBC News in October 2021 that assistive technology was little help to his son in mastering reading skills and his local public school had no plan to help him progress beyond needing the device. He’s fairly typical of many concerned parents who have come forward to testify at hearings of the ongoing Ontario Right to Read inquiry into human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities.

While assistive technology can be very useful in helping educators to diagnose particular reading skills deficits, it is problematic when utilized to ‘read’ to students and produce scripts on standardized literacy tests. There are some unintended consequences.  It’s not just the technology, notes University of Toronto clinical psychologist Todd Cunningham, it’s more about the “accommodations” made in completing the test.  He explains what actually happens: “When there are teachers in the room, it’s natural for them to help out struggling kids.“

The recent Ontario revelations inflated EQAO literacy scores do give us some indication of what to expect when the much-anticipated Right to Read public inquiry report finally lands in the spring of 2022.

Why are so many younger students still struggling with reading?  Is there any substitute for effective instruction in early reading?  Should school systems implement end of grade 1 phonics checks as a matter of policy? What is an appropriate role for the use of Assistive Technology? Should AT be used by students completing provincial assessments? If so, does the public have a right to know the extent of its use and literacy rates unassisted by such technology?

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‘Balanced Literacy’ enjoys a charmed life in Canadian elementary education. A whole generation of elementary teachers have not only been taught reading with ‘balanced literacy’ approaches and resources, but employ those same methods in teaching our youngest children to read.  The Canadian province of New Brunswick is typical of most North American educational jurisdictions in its adherence to the dominant approach embedded in its provincially-sanctioned text materials and leveled reading books. 

A “literacy crisis” has finally exposed the source of the problem and New Brunswick education authorities are beginning to connect the dots.  Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs, now campaigning for re-election,  described the “literacy rate” as “an embarrassment that we cannot put-up with any longer.”   Literacy was identified as a priority in Education Minister Dominic Cardy’s October 2018 Green Paper on Education, but the plan of action stopped short of committing to remedial changes.

It took a Twitter spat to flush out the province’s actual plans. On August 5, Minister Cardy took great exception to rumors circulating that New Brunswick was sticking with its conventional provincial literacy strategy, based largely upon the Fountas & Pinnell Literacy program.  “@FountasPinnell is ideological gobbledygook,” he tweeted, and then added “We are moving away from it as quickly as possible.” 

Abandoning the Fountas & Pinnell literacy program would constitute a sea change in the 2017 provincial literacy strategy inherited from the Brian Gallant Liberal government.  It would also mean breaking away from the pack because Fountas & Pinnell’s model of Literacy Level Intervention (LLI) and resources are firmly entrenched in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and other provinces.

Early literacy expert Erin Schryer was stunned by Cardy’s Twitter revelation.  With a Ph.D. in Early Literacy from University of New Brunswick, Dr. Schryer has experienced, first hand, the unintended harvest of the existing strategy and curriculum. As Executive Director of Elementary Literacy Inc., from 2014 to 2018, she embraced “structured literacy” and offered two supplementary volunteer-based reading achievement programs aimed at rescuing struggling readers in the early grades.  

“The science of reading is not new,” Schryer says, “and more and more teachers are questioning standard practice and awakening to the need for dramatic change,” in the form of a more systematic, structured approach where ‘phonics’ is not a bad word.  “Not all can read by osmosis, “she adds, “so we are excluding a large segment of the student population.”

Trying to fix students experiencing reading failure proved frustrating.  “I left Elementary Literacy Inc.,” Schryer explains, “because we were not moving the needle. We couldn’t extend what the schools were doing, so it wasn’t really working.”  Instead of banging her head against the wall, she’s taking matters into her own hands, as CEO since July 2018 of Origins Early Learning Childcare and Academy, serving over 400 children and families in Quispamsis and Saint John.

Challenging the dominance of what Cardy described as “ideological gobbledygook” will not be easy and the Minister can expect subterranean resistance.  ‘Balanced literacy’ is a term appropriated by Fountas & Pinnell as a means of preserving whole word reading pedagogy now under intense attack from educators, like Schryer, armed with evidence based-research demonstrating more conclusively how children learn to read and favouring a more structured approach to teaching early reading. 

Fountas & Pinnell has cornered the early literacy market with a patented a system of reading levels developed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell and published by Heinemann to support the use of their Levelled Literacy Interventions (LLI) series of student readers and teacher resource products.  It’s also closely aligned with Reading Recovery, a short-term, one-on-one Grade 1 literacy intervention, exemplifying a similar approach.

The program comes with a Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) that is often used as the primary measure of student reading progress.  Despite Fountas & Pinnell’s 2007 cautionary note about using the reading levels as an evaluative measure, employing it for that purpose is commonplace.  Co-founder of the American Right to Read Project Margaret Goldberg found administering BAS to be a time-consuming exercise and a “poorly-constructed assessment” on students for whom it was not designed, using material that limits student choice, and constrains their access to more advanced grade-level content.  

The most popular reading programs in Canada and the United States, including Fountas & Pinnell, are not backed by science. A year ago, the U.S.-based Education Week Research Centre identified the most widely used reading programs and then subjected each of them to closer scrutiny. The Education Week evaluators found many instances in which Fountas & Pinnell and the others diverged from evidence-based practices. 

Today, it’s widely accepted by reading researchers that programs for young children need to include phonics and Fountas & Pinnell purports to teach young pupils about sound-letter correspondence. In spite of such claims, the focus is on word identification and phonics instruction is so intermittent that students may not actually learn or be assessed on certain skills. Students are mostly taught to approach words in ways that undermine what can be gleaned from phonics.

The F &P system works on the assumption that students use multiple sources of information, or “cues,” to solve words. That may be true for some poor readers, but it flies in the face of evidence-based neuroscience research.  Effective readers, we now know, process all of the letters in words when they read them, and that they can read connected text very quickly. Early reading programs based upon the F &P system teach students to make better guesses, under the false assumption that it will make children better readers. The fundamental problem with that “three cue” approach is that it trains children to believe that they don’t always need to look at the letters that make up words in order to read them.

Many early years consultants and teachers do not recognize, or perhaps even know, that cuing strategies are not consistent with the science of reading. That’s not just the view of Dr. Schryer, but of many leading researchers, including University of British Columbia psychology professor Linda Siegel and Mount Saint Vincent University learning disabilities specialist Jamie Metsala. 

One of the reasons for the disconnect is that school system consultants not classroom teachers generally decide on what curriculum is authorized across a province or a school district. Two-thirds of the teachers surveyed in 2019 by Education Week reported that their school district selected the primary reading programs and materials, and the figure is likely higher in New Brunswick.

Back in December 2019, American Education Week reporter Sarah Schwartz made a telling comment about the state of teacher consultation and input when it comes to evaluating reading programs. “Even when teachers want to question their school or district’s approach,” she reported, “they may feel pressured to stay silent.”  Three teachers from different districts who spoke with Education Week requested that their names not be used in the story, for fear of repercussions from within the system.

What Minister Cardy has done, in criticizing the Fountas & Pinnell system, is to demonstrate that tinkering with the existing program is not the answer.  If F & P is on the way out, let’s hope the province leads the way in embracing a more soundly evidence-based approach recognizing the benefits of structured literacy.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the Telegraph-Journal, Provincial Edition and all daily papers in New  Brunswick.  

What explains the continued dominance of ‘balanced literacy’ in the form of Literacy Level Interventions and supporting reading materials? What does the science of reading tell us about how most students succeed in mastering reading?  Where’s the evidence to support the effectiveness of balanced literacy applied in universal fashion?  Why are so many early elementary teachers so reluctant to speak up to effect change? 


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Every school year seems to herald the arrival of a new crop of education books seeking to “fix the education system.”  Some champion the latest educational panacea, others target the supposed causes of decline, and a select few identify a possible pathway for improving teaching and learning or making schools better. Despite significant investments in remedial programs and ‘learning supports,’ a yawning “achievement gap” persists between students from marginalized or low-income families and their more affluent counterparts and, with few exceptions, it has not closed much over the past fifty years.

Two new education reform books, Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap, and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage, raise hope that the sources of the problem can be identified and actually addressed in the years ahead. Each of the two books, one American, the other Canadian, offer markedly similar diagnoses and urge policy-makers and educators alike to shore-up the rather emaciated content knowledge-based curriculum. 

Prominent American journalist Wexler demonstrates that elementary school teaching and learning, once considered a bright spot, is so undernourished that most teachers now teach as though it doesn’t matter what students are reading or learning, as long as they are acquiring skills of one kind or another.  Manitoba high school teacher Zwaagstra, in one commentary after another, shows how teaching content knowledge has been downgraded at all levels and overtaken by constructivist experiments embedded in the latest “foolish fads infecting public education.”

Forays into American elementary schools, during Wexler’s field research, produce some alarming lessons.  First graders in a Washington, DC, inner city school are observed, virtually lost, drawing clowns or struggling to fill-in worksheets in a class supposedly based upon a rather dense article about Brazil. Teachers jump wily-nily from topic to topic asking students to read about clouds one day, then zebras the next, completely out of context.  Few elementary teachers seem aware of the science of learning or the vital importance of prior knowledge in reading comprehension. Equally disturbing is the general finding that so many elementary teachers simply assume that children can acquire content knowledge later, after they have a modicum of skills. Such ‘progressive education’ assumptions prevail in most elementary schools, public, private and independent, almost without variation.

Zwaagstra’s book, composed of his best Canadian newspaper commentaries over the past decade, takes dead aim at the prevailing ideology fostered in faculties of education and perpetuated by provincial and school district armies of curriculum consultants and pedagogical coaches. Beginning teachers are trained to resist the temptation to be “a sage on the stage” and instead strive to be “a guide on the side.”  Zwaagstra completely rejects that approach on the grounds that it undermines teacher content knowledge and devalues the expertise of professionals in the classroom. He is, in this respect, speaking the same language as most secondary school teachers who have never really given up the notion that prior knowledge matters and that knowing your subject is critical to higher achievement in colleges and universities.

Zwaagstra speaks up for regular classroom teachers who focus on what works in the classroom and have learned, over the years, to be skeptical of the latest fads. Most regular teachers reading his stinging critiques of ‘discovery math,” whole-language-founded “balanced literacy,” and  incomprehensible “no zero” student evaluation policies will likely be nodding in approval. Not content simply to pick holes in existing theories and practices, he makes a common sense case for strategies that do work, especially in high schools —explicit instruction, knowledge-rich curriculum, and plenty of practice to achieve mastery.

Both Wexler and Zwaagstra go to considerable lengths to spare teachers from the blame for what has gone wrong in the school system. Prevailing pedagogical theories and education professors are identified as the purveyors of teaching approaches and practices floating on uncontested progressive education beliefs. When it comes to teaching reading comprehension, Wexler carefully explains why teachers continue to teach reading comprehension as a set of discrete skills instead of being founded on prior knowledge and expanded vocabulary. It is, in her analysis, “simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even mention it.”  In Zwaagstra’s case, he’s very sympathetic to hard-working teachers in the trenches who cope by carrying-on with what works and developing ‘work-arounds’ when confronted by staunch ideologues or impossible mandates.

What’s really significant about these two education reformers is that both are strong advocates for, and supporters of, the international researchED movement out to challenge and dispel popular myths that have little or no basis in evidence-based research or cognitive science. Zwaagstra is a very popular presenter at researchED Canada conferences and Wexler is one of the headliners at the upcoming American researchED conference, November 16, 2019, in Philadelphia, PA. 

The two authors are very much part of the great awakening made possible by the flourishing of social media conversations, especially on EduTwitter, where independently-minded educators from around the world now go to debate education reform, share the latest research in cognitive science, and discuss ways of grappling with common problems in everyday teaching.

Slowly, but surely, the global edu-gurus are losing their single channel, uncontested platforms and facing more and more teachers equipped to call into question prevailing teaching approaches and fashionable education fads. Moving forward is now less about finding and embracing education evangelists or grabbing hold of,  and riding, the latest fad, and far more about interrogating accepted truths and trusting your teacher colleagues to work out what works in the classroom.

What’s significant about the two books — Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage?  Now that the call for content-knowledge curriculum is back in vogue in the United States, will Canadian policy-makers and educators  begin looking more critically at their policies and practices?  With more educators embracing a knowledge-rich curriculum, what would it take to successfully challenge the the sugary progressive education consensus in elementary schools?  


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British educator Katie Ashford, the spunky curator of Tabula Rasa Blog, is stirring-up much needed education reform thinking.  “Education in the UK isn’t always good enough,” she says in her first “Why I Blog” post. “Far too many children pass through the doors of our schools into the real world knowing little, unable to read, and incapable of expressing themselves. To me, this is a tragedy. Our education system is flawed and we need to do something about it urgently.”

StrugglingTeenReaderThat commitment to raising educational standards and sense of urgency certainly shines through in her most recent commentary, “Please teach my daughter to read,” posted January 17, 2016, and now generating quite an online reaction. In it, Katie utilizes the case of a British teen’s amazing turnaround in reading fluency over 18 months to demonstrate that “correct methods” can work apparent wonders in making Special Education Needs (SEN) all but disappear.

She certainly spins a compelling story. As Assistant Head at Michaela Community School, in the Wembley District of London, Ashford reports that the student’s father enrolled “Georgia” in her school convinced that her academic struggles, entering secondary level, stemmed from not being able to read. Without promising miracles, she took on the project based upon her “hunch” that Georgia was “yet another victim of our profession’s ignorant mistakes” and, rather than having a “cognitive disability,” simply needed to be taught to read through proven, research-based methods.

Her “hunch” was borne out by Georgia’s experience. Eighteen months later, Ashford reported that “Georgia has received rigorous reading instruction and reads thousnds of words per day, including the classics. She is no longer on the SEN register and her reading age (level) has improved by 4 years. She still has lots of catching up to do, but she is making rapid progress.”

Ashford and her Tabla Rasa Education blog are, as expected, drawing flack from ‘diehard’ progressive educators either wedded to “whole word” approaches or simply hostile to academy schools such as Michaela with its explicit KIPP educational philosophy.  Resorting to such criticisms is revealing because it attacks the institution without really confronting the evidence of success.

Hunches about the impact of early reading failure on the rising incidence of SEN coded or designated students are well-founded and supported by mounds of research findings. Since the mid-1990s reading research has tended to show that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. The poor first-grade reader almost invariably continues to be a poor reader (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998). And the consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time.

The recognized pioneer in the field is Canadian researcher, Dr. Keith Stanovich, Professor Emeritas at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Thirty years ago, Stanovich pointed out in his well-known paper (1986) on the “Matthew effects” (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) that failure to acquire early word reading skills has lasting consequences ranging from negative attitudes toward reading (Oka & Paris, 1986), to reduced opportunities for vocabulary growth (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985), to missed opportunities for development of reading comprehension strategies (Brown, Palinscar, & Purcell, 1986), to less actual practice in reading than other children receive (Allington, 1984).

“Catch Them Before They Fall” is the key message conveyed by Joseph K. Torgesen, Jamie Metsala and other leading reading research specialists.  “It is a tragedy of the first order,” according to Torgeson,” that while we know clearly the costs of waiting too long, few school districts have in place a mechanism to identify and help children before failure takes hold. Indeed, in the majority of cases, there is no systematic identification until third grade, by which time successful remediation is more difficult and more costly.”

Early reading failure is now recognized as a critical factor contributing to the burgeoning numbers of Special Needs students not only in Britain but elsewhere. The Reading Reform Foundation has led the charge in the U.K. and one of the best articles making the connection is Dr. John Marks piece “Special Need or Can’t Read?” published in the May 2001 RRF Newsletter.  In it, he expressed alarm that the U.K. had ten times as many pupils with ‘Special Educational Needs’ than in 1980 and over a million and a half pupils in total.

Across Britain, Marks reported in 2001 that more than one in five of all pupils were on ‘Special Needs’ registers – and in some schools the figure was as high as a staggering 55% or more.  The numbers of SEN children with “statements” of severe disabilities stood at 2 to 3 per cent, meaning that the vast majority of SEN students were what was described as “soft” with, at best, moderate or undiagnosed learning disabilities. He then posed the fundamental question: “Is the explosion in ‘Special Needs’ real? Or has it happened because schools have failed over many years to teach properly – and to teach reading in particular.”

A recent shift in British SEN policy is beginning to address the problem identified a decade ago.  In September 2014, Special Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms to the Children and Families Act were introduced to better track and properly designate students by their SEN provision.  Since then, the total number of SEN students has dropped from 1.49 to 1.3 million, while the number with a clear SEN “statement” stands at 2.8%, a slight increase over the past year.  This was consistent with a 2010 Ofsted Study that found about one-quarter of all children labelled with SEN and as many as half of those on “School Action” lists, did not actually have SEN.

Literacy levels are now considered to be a major contributing factor perpetuating economic inequality.  A 2014 report of the National Literacy Trust and commissioned by Save the Children has now sparked the publication ‘How reading can help children escape poverty’ produced by the Read On. Get On. coalition. That U.K. campaign brings together teachers and other professionals, charities, businesses, publishers and local communities pursuing the lofty goal of all children reading well by the age of 11 by 2025. Much like Katie Ashfield, they see the potential for all children learning to read if taught by more effective methods and fully embraced by the school system.

How many of our Special Education Needs (SEN) population are actually casualties of ineffective early reading instruction? Why are education reformers questioning the incidence of SEN student numbers often labelled as hard-nosed or unsympathetic to students? Which early reading interventions work best in producing fluent readers?  If we were to “catch them early,” what would SEN programs look like and would we actually be serving those who need intensive support much better? 

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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.

LiteraciesPosterMSVUTwo 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?

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“It’s a hidden shame for far too many people,” says Paul MacNeil, Executive Director of the Bedford-Sackville Literacy Network (BSLN). http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/education/bsln/  “Adults with literacy challenges… tend to struggle on alone… and need a helping hand to get the educational upgrading they desperately need to make it in the world.”

MacNeil is a living example of those struggles. Born in Sydney, Cape Breton, he quit school, went to work at the SYSCO steel plant, and raised four children on short pay checks while being laid off by the company some 21 times.  In his late 30s, he used his EI to help finance an education, earning two university degrees.  Even then, he struggled to find regular work, that is, until discovering the crying needs in the adult education field.

Adult illiteracy remains largely a hidden problem, even in our larger cities. Since the 2003 International Adult and Life Skills Survey (IALSS), the brutal facts are well known. A shocking proportion of Canada’s adult population simply lack the essential skills required to cope in our 21st century “knowledge-based” economy. Two out of five adults operate at Level 1 (Poor) or Level 2 (Weak) levels in literacy and the numbers are higher for numeracy.  Whether observing factory workers struggling with instruction manuals or watching cashiers attempting to make change, the outward signs are everywhere.

Most of those afflicted with illiteracy are powerless to change their current circumstances without “essential skills” training. Many rural Canadians hide their shame and in Canada’s cities the casualt ies of our education system drift along, moving from job-to-job, marginalized in one of the world’s most advanced and affluent societies. It’s so serious that the biggest Canadian businesses, most notably, the TD Bank, have started to take notice.

“One of the biggest challenges we have in business,” TD Banks’s Chief Economist Craig Alexander recently declared in Halifax, “is awareness of the problem.” A few short years ago, he counted himself among those still in the dark.  “I was absolutely shocked,” he admitted, “when I looked at the actual figures for a supposedly advanced country like Canada. It stunned me that 4 in 10 young Canadians and 5 in 10 adults are lacking in literacy, and it’s higher  (6 out of 10) when it comes to numeracy.” http://www.td.com/document/PDF/economics/special/td-economics-special-literacy0907.pdf

What’s the root cause of our adult literacy challenges?  Provincial Euucation Departments and even publicly-funded literacy associations tend to dance around that issue. “The regular system is failing them, ” says Paul MacNeil, ” They are shunted along in school and they’re still coming out at the end unable to properly read or write. They’re self-esteem is shot… It’s a shame what we are doing to them.”  http://halifax.openfile.ca/halifax/text/hidden-shame-adult-illiteracy

“Our number one economic problem,” Alexander claimed, “is abysmal productivity – and a lack of innovation.”  A Statistics Canada survey, cited by Alexander, reported that lifting literacy scores by 1% could raise labour productivity by 2.5% and output per capita by 1.5%, boosting national income by $32 billion.

Literacy advocates in Nova Scotia are quick to pinpoint why the problem persists, even in cities like Halifax with five accredited universities and an illiteracy rate of 34 percent. The fight against adult illiteracy in Nova Scotia is largely entrusted to thirty poorly-funded Community Learning centres in the Literacy Nova Scotia Network. While the NS NDP government has tripled funding for short-term Workplace Training from $300,000 to $ 1 million over the past 2 years, the local volunteer-driven Literacy Network agencies are struggling to stay afloat.

Cathy Hammond, Secretary of the Bedford-Sackville Literacy Network, speaks with some authority on the subject. As the parent of four children, including one with severe learning challenges, she is gravely concerned about the current trend.  “Adult literacy funding,” she insists, “has changed… providing more of an employability focus than educational upgrading and it threatens to leave some adult learners without options.”

Over at the Dartmouth Learning Network, Sunday Miller put it more bluntly.  Government funding for adult learning, she told Chronicle Herald columnist Brenda MacDonald, is “a joke.”  http://thechronicleherald.ca/dcw/54795-adult-literacy-can-be-shortest-path-educated-society

“There’s not enough money being put toward adult learning,” Miller insists. “I don’t believe in a free ride…but when people want to start to change their lives, and they hit roadblock after roadblock after roadblock and get doors slammed in their faces, then there’s something wrong with the system.”  In short, providing short-term workplace training does not really get to the root of the chronic problem.

Adult illiteracy is still a sleeper as a major Canadian education policy issue, perhaps because it focuses on the products of the K-12 public school system. Why is adult literacy considered to be an afterthought?  Who will step-up and tackle the problem head-on in Canada, now that the TD Bank has put it back on the public agenda?  What are the political obstacles and structural barriers to addressing Canada’s “hidden shame”?

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Threats to any early literacy programs have a way of arousing passions. After the Nova Scotia government of Darrell Dexter announced in early February 2011 that it was “phasing-out” Reading Recovery, the immediate response was predictable. Parents of early elementary age children were panicked, early years teachers were up in arms and , before long, a “Save Reading Recovery” Facebook group rallied in its defense. Then on March 9, 2011 dozens of parents and teachers descended upon the Nova Scotia House of Assembly to make their personal pleas with heart-rending stories and a few tears. http://thechronicleherald.ca/Front/9020121.html

Passionate supporters of Reading Recovery were desperate to save the embattled literacy program for Grade 1 pupils. Many assumed that killing RR meant a further decimation of both literacy programming and special education services. Since the promised alternative was described in only the vaguest terms, they feared the worst. Few educators, let alone the general public, had any inkling that Reading Recovery was a problematic program, according to a mounting number of research studies. Fewer still knew that both its cost and effectiveness had been called into question.

Reading Recovery (RR) is a hardy plant in the garden of elementary education. Since being developed by Marie Clay in New Zealand in 1985, it has attracted a loyal following as a means of responding to the alarmingly high incidence of reading failure in early elementary grades. It actually emerged out of the “Reading Wars” as a kind of antidote to the rise of phonics (the “sound-out -letters” method ) While critics of Whole Language (WL) (“see and say” methods) campaigned for the restoration of systematic phonics, Reading Recovery programs popped up all over North America as a “band aid” for what ailed WL-based literacy programs.

The RR program was seized by Education Departments and boards as the latest panacea. By 2000, RR had spread to 10,000 American Grade 1 classrooms and had made inroads in Ontario as well as Nova Scotia. Over a 15 year period, Nova Scotia poured millions into RR, training some 600 teachers and running 33,000 kids through the 12-week, intensive, one-on-one program.

Thousands of parents in the 1990s were “hooked on phonics,” but school boards found their salvation in Reading Recovery. “These days,” Ramesh Ponnaru wrote in the OQE Newsletter (March 2000), ” it’s rare to find a school that does not claim to teach phonics, but whole language programs like Reading Recovery remain prevalent.” Simply stated, RR filled the need for a “balanced” program where phonics was “embedded in the context of a total reading/language program.”

Overzealous promoters of Reading Recovery contend that it works miracles with struggling readers. It focuses only on 6-year-old children who show signs of reading difficulty and score in the bottom 20 percentile in reading. Pupils selected for RR are provided with 30 to 40 minutes of daily one-on-one “pull-out” instruction for at least 12 consecutive weeks. The one-to-one delivery model and the use of regular “on-grid” teachers make it exceedingly expensive to run.

Reading Recovery does have a fiercely loyal following, but independent educational research has shown that it is not good value for money. Not only does it serve only a few students (and those are Grade 1 students) per year in a school, but for the same or less cost a school could offer a variety of more empirically validated, effective interventions for groups of children at several grade levels.

With Reading Recovery, what do school boards get for their money? The best validated research says not enough in terms of improved reading skills to warrant the expense, compared to other early reading programs and interventions. One leading authority, Dr. Melissa Farrall, reviewed the literature and conclude that it fell short on five different counts. She cited research studies identifying high program withdrawal rates, challenging the company’s success rate indices, and analyzing the negligible effects on demand for special education language services. “Independent research, ” she stated bluntly,” does not validate Reading Recovery’s claims of success.” http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/read.rr.research.farrall.htm

Struggling readers cry out for support and should be an educational priority for schools. So if Reading Recovery is not the answer, what is?

School districts in Britain, California, and even New Zealand have demonstrated the success of systematic phonics. One school, Elmhurst Primary in Newington, UK, a low SES area, has had amazing success with such an program for all Grade 1 students. They actually found they no longer had a need for Reading Recovery after implementing a structured and systematic reading program. http://www.teachers.tv/videos/applying-a-systematic-phonics-scheme.

The stakes are high for kids when it comes to learning to read. What explains the remarkable spread of Reading Recovery in school boards across North America? Why has Reading Recovery survived, in spite of the independent, validated research findings? If it is overly expensive and of dubious merit, why do parents cling so passionately to the program? To what extent does the fixation start in faculties of education where novice teachers continue to be socialized to believe in Whole Language and its methods?

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