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Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce waits to speak to the media at an Etobicoke library, in Toronto, on April 16, 2023. Lecce is extending his 'back to basics' curriculum push into kindergarten.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s kindergarten students would be taught the sounds and letters of the alphabet, learn specific vocabulary and be introduced to the concept of fractions under a revamped curriculum that the government plans to implement in schools in the fall of 2025.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Tuesday that the “back-to-basics” instruction in reading and math within a play-based kindergarten program would allow for a much smoother transition for children into Grade 1, where the language and math curriculums have been updated.

“Students will receive clear direct instruction on foundational knowledge and skills before they begin to practise and problem solve down the road,” Mr. Lecce said at a news conference at Toronto’s Glen Park Public School.

The changes to the curriculum were sparked by a scathing report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission in early 2022 that said the province’s approach to early reading was failing many students. Children with dyslexia and special education needs, for example, struggled with an approach that involved guessing and predicting text.

Ontario responded by revamping its elementary school language curriculum with a focus on explicit, word-reading instruction. The province also changed its math curriculum to include more foundational learning elements.

Further, the province and its public elementary teachers’ union recently agreed on a new contract that would add about 400 specialist teachers to help the province’s youngest learners advance in their reading skills. The specialist teachers will also support classroom educators in administering a reading screening tool to measure proficiency in senior kindergarten, and Grades 1 and 2.

The current kindergarten curriculum has been in place since 2016.

Mr. Lecce said the staffing model of a kindergarten teacher and an early childhood educator would remain. Although the program would continue to be play-based, he said that the teacher would use new words to build vocabulary while children are constructing a house with building blocks, for example. Students may study shapes or objects to understand fractions.

The government plans to spend the next year consulting on the curriculum before releasing it in the spring of 2025.

Kate Winn, a kindergarten teacher at the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board, said she and her colleagues have been anxious for changes to the curriculum. Ms. Winn, who spoke at the announcement, said she has incorporated explicit language instruction in her classroom.

“Explicit instruction and play are both essential for children and will complement each other as we move forward,” she said.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario declined to comment on Tuesday.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said that “alignment with the broader curriculum is essential to ensure that our kindergarten students have a seamless transition into Grade 1.”

Alicia Smith, executive director at Dyslexia Canada, said that there is a large variation in approaches to teaching reading from one kindergarten classroom to another. She said that the heavy focus on play-based learning meant that many children were not benefiting from learning some foundational skills and phonics instruction.

“It’s about consistency. And it’s about just making sure that kids learn the alphabet in kindergarten, how to form their letters, letter sounds and some basic sounding out. It’s not like we’re going to be getting them to read Shakespeare. It’s very much developmentally appropriate,” Ms. Smith said.

“It’s not a one way or the other approach. You can absolutely have play and some explicit instruction.”

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