Questions and answers about the changes in reading instruction in Ontario
Where did this come from?
In 2012 the Supreme Court of Canada released a unanimous decision recognizing that learning to read is not a privilege, but a basic and essential human right. In October 2019, the Ontario Human Rights Commission announced an inquiry into reading instruction in Ontario, and released their report in January 2022. They concluded that the methods commonly used in Ontario schools is a barrier to students accessing their right to learn to read. Though the report indicates that students with dyslexia are the most impacted, the findings and recommendations of the report should affect reading instruction for all students.
Is this a return to phonics-based instruction?
While the findings of the inquiry do call for a return of many phonics-based instructional strategies, it is not necessarily a pendulum swing away from comprehension towards decoding only. Comprehension strategies should continue, but the report states that in order for students to gain reading fluency, they need to master grapheme to phoneme correspondences. This means, they need to use the written structures of language to decipher what the word is and how to say it. It cannot be assumed that they will pick up this skill naturaly while working on comprehension.
The report came out strongly against instructional strategies that help student use other contextual clues to understand a word in the place of decoding the word itself. Essentially, educators should avoid using strategies that help students work around decoding the word itself until reading fluency is gained.
What instructional methods am I supposed to avoid?
According to the OHRC report, the most problematic commonly used strategy, which for many decades was assumed to be the best approach is called Three Cueing. Three Cueing is a strategy where an educator will encourage a student to use clues from the surrounding context and their own intuition to read an unknown word. The three cues are:
Does it make sense? (Meaning)
Does it sound right? (Structure)
Does it look right? (Visual)
It relies on the assumption that we read words as ideograms, or unanalyzed wholes. If students do not recognize a word, they are encouraged to skip it and come back, or to think about what word might fit here. These strategies pulled attention away from decoding the relationship between the letters, the sounds, and the meaning of words.
While this clearly did not have a negative impact on many students that successfully learned to read, it did, however, have a critically negative impact on many students shifting the trajectory of their lives as struggling readers. This is why it became understood as a human rights issue. Some students were left behind.
The OHRC report states that any strategy that helps students learn to read without the foundational structure of learning to decode words should not be used.
Is this change politically motivated?
While it might be tempting to assume that this is similar to a "back to basics" approach in math, this change did not originate with the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario. Though the provincial government funds the Ontario Human Rights Commission, they do not have any control over its research and findings. Since this change originated from a human rights point of view, it is not related to a simple ideological shift along the lines of the "reading wars" of the 80s and 90s.
Though the ORHC report may stray to a wider critique of education in Ontario, its intent is to respond to the human rights-based complaints by students with dyslexia and their parents. Certain reading strategies have been, essentially, leaving them behind.
Is the change based on research?
While there are still differing opinions on reading instruction, over all, it appears the bulk of researchers now say that students (especially those with dyslexia) need support to build a solid foundation of 'grapheme to phoneme correspondences' in JK to grade 1, while concurrently working on comprehension strategies.
Some researchers, however, point out that once children have this skill, a focus on phonics can be damaging to other critical areas of reading development, such as comprehension. This is evidenced by the dismal results of nation-wide phonics-based reading instruction programs in the United States.
Jim Cummins, an Ontario-based early reading researcher suggests that the OHRC report highlights a critical issue, but goes too far by suggesting that Ontario is failing all students. Considering our very high standing in reading performance measured by international tests, the claim that we are failing to teach students to read is absurd (Canada ranked higher than Finland in 2018, for example and Ontario is only below Alberta nationally). Cummins gives the report credit for highlighting the human rights issue regarding students with dyslexia, but argues that it strays too far from its intended purpose by pushing an exaggerated claim of a reading catastrophe in the province. Cummins' article is linked below.
Also explore the Ontario Human Rights Commission's "Right to Read" report linked below to see a summary of early-reading research.
This report describes how common methods of reading instruction are actually harmful to some students' reading development and negatively impacts their right to read. This is the key document that is triggering cascading changes throughout reading education in Ontario. The executive summary is the shortened version of the report (though still 74 pages in PDF format). If you're interested in learning more about any issue covered in the summary, you can also access the full report through the same link).
In response to the OHRC's Right to Read report, the Ministry of Education released this teacher's guide to address what changes are needed to address the human rights concerns of the OHRC report. The recording of the webinar that unpacked this guide is available on the ministry's Supports for Learning eCommunity available only to educators in publicly funded school boards.
An important read to understand the key criticisms of the report from scholars in early reading. Cummins suggests that the report has critical messages that Ontario needs to take action on, but are overshadowed by an unwarranted attack on all of reading instruction in the province.