Take a typical classroom of 25 pupils, anywhere in Canada. At the back, seven boys and girls slouch in their seats, unable to understand most of what they read, or to express their thoughts in writing. The problem of poor literacy skills is a scandal in plain view.
At some point the schools have to say, Enough. Enough pretending that poor readers are actually benefiting from social studies or novel studies or even science or mathematics. Enough of this charade of teaching and learning.
Pull the struggling readers out of their regular program, as early as Grade 7, when students in much of Canada are beginning the rotary system (moving from class to class), and teach them to read and write. Don't just give a student an "intervention" that might or might not succeed. Intervene in any shape or form necessary until the student can read and write acceptably well. And don't just try to reach the most promising of the struggling readers. Do it for all of them.
This proposal originates with Julia O'Sullivan, a professor and dean of education at the University of Western Ontario.
"Whatever it takes" - that is her guiding idea. Reading and writing are "the golden ticket" to success in school and the modern economy. (She borrows the phrase from Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) "There has to be a commitment that every student in Canada has a right to a golden ticket."
The idea seems at once revolutionary and stunningly obvious. Throw out the demonstrably false assumption that all students in Grade 7 can read and write well enough to succeed in school. Assess students one by one; identify those who are grade levels behind their peers; and give them the support they need to catch up. If it means putting some subjects on hold until they do so, so be it.
Consider the absurdity of turning a blind eye to weak literacy. In Ontario, all students take a literacy test in Grade 10, set at a Grade 9 level. Nearly two-thirds of those who were at the lowest level on the province's Grade 6 reading test go on to fail the Grade 10 literacy test. Then they take a special literacy course. Why wait till Grade 10 to discover that those students still can't read acceptably well? Why not give them the course before they waste years of everyone's time?
This is not to single out Ontario for criticism. Far from it. Ontario insists on facing up to the failings of its education system. If its students don't pass a literacy test, they don't graduate. The motto of the other provinces might be: Don't ask (if our graduates can read); don't tell (anyone you can't).
Most school districts across Canada put an admirable stress on literacy in the early years. Two hours a day are usually given over in solid blocks of time to reading and writing in the primary grades. Some jurisdictions have intensive supports such as reading recovery (specialized one-on-one training) for struggling Grade 1 pupils. And still, children slip through the cracks.
Can the system turn around weak readers in Grade 7, or even later? Educators who work with this age group say it can be done.
Some students were as much as three to five grades behind their grade level in reading at Westmount Junior High School, on the fringes of inner-city Edmonton. Then they were pulled out for intensive instruction in reading, five times a week, for 50 minutes at a time, in groups of five to eight. (There were three such groups, out of 75 pupils in Grade 7.) A specialized literacy instructor who worked with them also shared her expertise with the teachers of all subject areas. The program has changed somewhat, because of difficulties with teacher timetables; now, the weak readers are put together in a class of 15, and move together through all classes. Their language-arts class is focused on reading and writing. By Grade 9, this class is so proficient it outperforms the other two classes in a wide range of academic subjects.
"Once they're in Grade 7 and starting to go through puberty, it's like their brains are like babies again - really malleable," says Arlene Lipkewich, a teacher-librarian at Westmount. Students generally move up two grade levels in reading ability in a year in the class of 15. With one-on-one instruction, some have leapt four grade levels. The program is funded through a $79-million innovation fund of Alberta Education.
Why were the students so far behind? "Some have attendance issues. Some haven't experienced the culture of reading at home. It's almost like verbal poverty. They haven't been exposed to the vocabulary. Yet when we're able to connect [reading]to something they already know, they're like sponges."
At the start, many say they hate reading and writing. But watching their struggling peers grasp those skills has a powerful effect. "They read their writing out loud. They're proud of it. They say, 'Ms. Lipkewich, you have to hear this!'"
There is no recipe for teaching students who struggle with reading and writing, Prof. O'Sullivan says. Local authorities should decide whether one-on-one sessions, small groups, reading clubs at lunch or other approaches work best.
Above all, what matters is the quality of instruction. "The teaching of reading requires excellent instruction," says Prof. O'Sullivan. "It's the teacher and the teaching that absolutely makes the difference." International standards suggest 182 hours in reading instruction for student teachers; in Canada, the average is just 24 to 36 hours.
Even as British Columbia and Ontario prepare to allocate billions of dollars to full-day kindergarten, in the absence of any real evidence that it will boost literacy results, educators are realizing how destructive it is to ignore weak literacy in the middle years. Vancouver is rolling out a non-fiction reading assessment for Grade 8 and 9 students. In Halifax, every junior high school has a resource teacher to help struggling students.
It's hardly a secret that reading and writing are the golden ticket to school success. What could be more heartbreaking than to have young people waste years of their time in classrooms without one? The provinces, school boards and individual schools need to say to students in Grade 7: If you don't have the ticket by now, we will move Heaven and Earth and timetables to help you get one.