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Julia O’Sullivan is a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. She is the chief adviser of the the Martin Family Initiative’s Model Schools Literacy Project and the founding national director of Canada’s Centre of Excellence for Children and Adolescents with Special Needs.

Across Canada this year almost 400,000 five-year-olds were enrolled in kindergarten in provincial, territorial, First Nations, federal, private and independent schools. By the time they finish Grade 3, 100,000 or 25 per cent will be unable to read and write well enough to keep up in Grade 4. Most will never “catch up” – and that was before the pandemic.

Unable to read well enough to learn from textbooks and write what they know and think, they will begin to fall behind in most areas of the curriculum, moving through the grades struggling year after year, often stigmatized and relegated to special programs, required for years to attend schools that have already let them down. Among the 100,000, those growing up in poverty, Indigenous children, those whose first language is neither English nor French, and children with special needs, will be disproportionately represented. They will join those who have gone before them, 100,000 nine- and 10-year-olds every year who are more likely to drop out of school, be incarcerated, live adult lives in poverty and repeat this cycle with their own children. This is preventable: There is no evidence that children, except for those with the most complex exceptional needs, cannot learn to read if they are taught well.

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School closings during the pandemic were followed by the summer break when vulnerable children traditionally fall further behind their more advantaged peers and disproportionately in reading. Estimates are that every summer, vulnerable children lose two months of the progress they had made before the break; 25 per cent of the gap at the start of the year is owing to summer learning loss. Worse, by the end of Grade 5, vulnerable children are reading on average three grades behind their more advantaged peers. The lasting consequences of summer learning loss will be compounded by closings due to the pandemic. The youngest and most vulnerable children will bear a disproportionate burden and will carry it with them through life.

Reading and writing proficiency at the end of Grade 3 is the most important academic objective in school because it is the foundation for understanding instruction in all disciplines. While you can learn to read at any age, proficiency by the age of nine or 10 is a golden ticket without which children have little chance for continued success in school. There are other priorities in education, but none is more important than giving children the critical tool they need to fully understand, question, participate in and influence the world around them.

“Reading crises” are typically declared in response to negative changes in Canadian students’ performance on international reading assessments. Yet no crises are declared when, year after year in Canada, depending on the province or territory, at least 20 per cent and up to 40 per cent of third and fourth graders fail to meet expectations on reading assessments. This is a permanent crisis that decades of research, policy reports, school reforms and think tanks have failed to address successfully. This situation reflects the social, economic, cultural, linguistic and geographic inequities that have existed for generations in Canada. This has become expected and arguably accepted in schools. Current educational discourse about so-called 21st-century learning skills fails to recognize those skills will only belong to children with proficiency in literacy. It is ludicrous to think that children who cannot reliably identify the letters of the alphabet will be coding, thinking critically or composing collaboratively in school. Education, which aspires to be the great leveller, simply continues to support the status quo.

Once children step over the threshold of the school, it is the school’s responsibility to teach them to read and write, no matter who the children are, what language they speak, whatever their background. Parents and guardians in turn have a right to straightforward information about how their child is progressing as a reader and a writer. How many report cards for third graders include comments like this: “Your child is reading at a Grade 1 level, has insufficient proficiency to meet the literacy demands in Grade 4 and is unlikely ever to catch up”? Parents cannot be expected to advocate for their children without accurate information. Parents of disadvantaged children, many who were ill-served by schools themselves, are the least likely to challenge the school. When they do, they are often met with resistance, delayed assessments and ineffective intervention plans that do not help their child or the child’s classroom teacher.

Decades of research converge on the conclusion that it is the quality of teaching that makes the difference in early literacy. There is no guru you can send for, no program or handheld device you can buy – teachers teach children to read. While many children come to school with rich literacy backgrounds, others have not had the benefit of such privilege. These are the children who need powerful teaching the most and who suffer the greatest when they don’t get it. Teachers know this. A recent survey of educators from 65 countries, including Canada, found that “variability of teacher knowledge and effectiveness is one of the greatest barriers to equity in literacy.” Further, 65 per cent of the teachers surveyed believed they had not been adequately prepared or supported to teach early literacy effectively, especially with children who struggle.

Despite a solid research base, there is little common institutional understanding of what teachers need to know and do to teach early literacy well in Canada. Time and time again, the depth and nature of expertise required to teach reading and writing is underrecognized and undervalued, especially by those with influence over what happens in schools. Teacher education programs vary across the country, as does accreditation of those programs and licensing requirements for new teachers. Once they enter the profession, many teachers face a patchwork of ever-changing directives (for example, from ministries of education, school boards, literacy consultants) about what and how to teach in early literacy. These directives are often accompanied by expensive commercial literacy programs, which usually come in a big box with little or no evidence of effectiveness. When this pandemic passes, we cannot allow education to go back to “normal.” When normal means continued failure to make the institutional changes necessary to ensure teachers have the preparation and support they need to accomplish the most important goal entrusted to them. When normal means leaving 25 per cent of children behind year after year, denying hundreds of thousands of children their right to fundamental literacy.

The right to education is recognized in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26), Declaration of the Rights of the Child (Article 28) and Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Article 14), which includes children’s right to education in their Indigenous language. But “education” has not been well defined in these declarations nor in legislation specific to education in Canada. There is no stated minimum for what children’s education rights include, beyond access and non-discrimination. Hence the importance of a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit from a panel of judges. That ruling focuses squarely on basic literacy as the irreducible minimum in education for children. It states in part that children “have a fundamental right to a basic minimal education, meaning one that can provide them with a foundational level of literacy.” Evan Caminker, co-counsel for the appellants and former dean of law at the University of Michigan, commented: “We are not asking for a Cadillac, or even a used low-end Kia. We are asking for something more than the Flintstones’s car.” A settlement was reached with the Governor’s office in Michigan and the complaint withdrawn, days before all 16 judges on the Sixth Circuit voted to review. Although the case from Michigan is ended, federal courts in other parts of United States are hearing similar cases.

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Every child who attends a school in Canada has the right to more than the Flintstones’s car. The bare minimum, a low standard to set for all schools, but it would be a start. More than the foundation for school success, fundamental literacy is critical for full democratic participation and to the exercise of other fundamental rights. It is time we went beyond talking about equity and social justice in education and gave all children a critical tool they need to get justice and equity for themselves.

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