The Right To Read

Five elementary school-age children stand lined up with books in their hands on a dark green background. Image text says "The Right to Read".
Every child has the right to learn to read fluently and to comprehend what they read, especially children who have reading difficulties.

This was affirmed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) on February 28, 2022 in their eagerly awaited landmark inquiry report on “The Right To Read”. Unfortunately, they also concluded that the Ontario school system has failed many children in this regard by using methods and materials that are ineffective rather than those supported by decades of research as being most effective.

As expected, the Inquiry further found that reading difficulties affected other academic skills such as spelling and writing. Since all of these foundational skills cross other subject areas, academic success becomes very challenging and has had deep impacts on the self-esteem and mental health of affected students.

It was also obvious that students who already face other barriers or disadvantages such as being racialized, English Language learners, First Nations, Metis and Inuit students, or from low-economic backgrounds, were even more affected by the additional struggles of not reading well. Thus, for all students with reading difficulties, adulthood and the creation of a successful life become very challenging.

“Everyone wants and needs to be able to read words to function in school and life. The inquiry heard many accounts of people who could not read a menu in a restaurant, read ingredients on a food label, read street signs, play video games that involve reading, search the Internet, look at websites or access other forms of digital media.”

Therefore, the Inquiry concluded that its work was “not just about an equal right to read – it is about an equal right to a future.”

The Science of Reading

The Commission’s findings are very clear that “nearly all students can learn to read words proficiently with science-based systematic and explicit instruction in foundational reading skills.” This means that except for children with very complex issues, every child can learn to read well. The Science of Reading is a broad body of research from the fields of developmental psychology, educational psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Decades of this research has established beyond any doubt that reading is not a naturally acquired skill, like learning how to speak, but instead must be explicitly taught. And though it seems that some children can learn to read well without much formal instruction, for most children, learning to read well and to understand what has been read only develops with direct, explicit and systematic instruction.

From the information gathered by conducting interviews, reviewing research and analyzing data, the Inquiry defined five key requirements as being critical to the Right to Read. They included clear expectations in the provincial curriculum on teaching letter-sound relationships (which is more than just phonics) steeped in the Science of Reading approaches. Next came frequent early screening of all students from Kindergarten to Grade 2 to identify at-risk students. These could then receive early interventions to prevent reading problems from developing. For students in higher grades with reading difficulties, accommodations were listed as being helpful but not a substitute for continuing interventions in teaching students how to read. Finally, interventions and accommodations for reading were not to be dependent on psychological assessments (where timeliness, costs and accessibility are often major barriers) and should instead only be used in specific circumstances when interventions are not working as expected.

In this approach to teaching reading, “if classroom instruction is based on an evidence-based core curriculum, most students (80–90%) will learn to read words accurately and efficiently, and few students will need more intensive instruction or intervention.” Unfortunately, the current approaches, such as three-cueing, whole language, and balanced literacy, are not research-based and do not meet the needs of all children because these methods are insufficient to teach reading (and spelling) well.

Implementing the 5 Keys

In thinking about the five key requirements, they do not appear to be particularly difficult to implement: mainly a change to the Language Arts curriculum, applying screening and interventions in the early grades and continuing to teach students how to read even in upper grades. However, what is not obvious here is that it also involves the wholesale retraining of nearly all teachers in the province of Ontario. The Inquiry found that the research-based methods for teaching reading skills are rarely taught at university and colleges with teacher preparation programs. This makes sense, since if teachers were properly trained in effective reading approaches, students would not be failing to read. Teacher training and replacing ineffective programs and materials with ones that support the Science of Reading will be a significant investment in ensuring that all students learn to read.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has accepted the challenge.

To read the full report with its 157 recommendations, click here.

To read the Executive Summary, click here.

To learn about Effective Literacy Instruction, click here.

To learn about the Right to Read Program, which includes a Reading Readiness Screening Tool and teacher professional development in the Science of Reading, from the Learning Disabilities Association of Alberta, click here.

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