“This is the biggest education scandal of the last fifty years.”
This somewhat hyperbolic declaration was how New Brunswick’s Education Minister, Dominic Cardy, summed up his views a few days ago on that province’s approach to reading instruction. Calling the traditional methods that have been used “a disgrace”, Cardy accused current educational practice of being based on little more than a series of “weird ideological beliefs”.
The impetus for Cardy’s tirade was a report released earlier this month by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) on how reading instruction is handled in that province. The report claims quite unreservedly that “Despite decades of multi-disciplinary research on what is most effective for teaching students early reading skills…Ontario is systematically failing” when it comes to teaching kids to read.
According to the authors, the reason is clear: foundational word-reading skills have been overlooked in favour of contextual word reading strategies.
In other words, too much whole-language, not enough phonics.
For folks who may not know, the methods for teaching kids to read are generally divided into two camps. Whole-language instructions asks students to predict words based on context and cueing systems where phonics programs use the perhaps more commonly known method of sounding out words.
This is a major over-simplification of both practices, of course. However, the OHRC did not mince its words. According to the report, what is needed to improve the reading outcomes for Ontario students is “…explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics.”
That brings us rather nicely to Nova Scotia, and why this could be such a damning report for our schools.
One of the largest criticisms levied by the OHRC was that many strategies currently employed for helping struggling readers are not based in research. The authors again did not mince words, declaring that many jurisdictions use “ineffective, commercial programs that have little basis in science”.
One of the commercial programs specifically called out by the commission is Reading Recovery. The OHRC commission was “…concerned with school boards’ use of Reading Recovery® because it focuses on cueing systems, levelled readers and running records… the adequacy of the program and research has been consistently contested”.
The problem, however, is that Reading Recovery and the use of running records has been a staple of the Nova Scotia education system for decades.
The implementation of Reading Recovery has hit a few bumps along the way. Tracing its origins all the way back to 1988 , the program was set to be scrapped by the NDP government in 2011. Stephen McNeil’s Liberal Government recommitted in 2016, and it became part of the sweeping changes to the educational landscape brought about by that government.
The Houston Tories have continued that trend, and in its most recent accountability report, the DoEECD acknowledged having met its target of offering Reading Recovery in almost all elementary schools by 2020, with the remainder set to have access by the end of 2022. It also has assigned upwards of 150 specialists to administer the program.
These two realities are a bit tough to reconcile. If, in fact, Reading Recovery does not have a solid basis of educational research to show it works, why has it been so widely promoted here in Nova Scotia?
What sets this report apart from others in the debate over reading is that it has not been developed from an educational perspective, but rather from a human rights one.
In November of 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the case of Jeffery Moore, a student with Dyslexia. At issue was his inability to read. Moore argued that his school district in British Columbia had denied him access to education by not putting in place the appropriate supports for his condition. The courts sided with Moore, and declared that learning to read was “a basic and essential human right”. It was this decision that led the OHRC to launch its inquiry in 2019.
This is why Minister Cardy, and indeed, educators from right across Canada have taken note. The fact that a governmental human rights commission has come down on one side of this debate will make it very challenging for other jurisdictions to not closely examine how they teach kids to read.
What I find strikingly odd, however, is how silent our Nova Scotian airways have been on this issue. Beyond Cardy’s outbursts, there has been little response outside of Ontario, at least that I have seen. One would think that a human rights commission report that seemed to paint our education system in a pretty negative light would, at the very least, warrant comment from our government.
Perhaps it is time for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to launch a public inquiry of its own.