Reading skills on the wane in Canadian schools
Without a doubt, reading is the most important skill taught in school. So in a world where young Canadians compete with other young people from around the world, for post-secondary admission and in the workforce, we should be keenly interested in how our students perform on international reading assessments.
The latest test results raise cause for concern.
First, however, the good news. According to the latest (2018) results from PISA (the OECD’s Programme of International Student Assessment, which tests 15-year-old students worldwide), the mean score for Canadian students in reading was higher than the mean score of 90 per cent of participating countries. It’s important to note, however, there was significant variation across Canada with some provinces (notably Manitoba) lagging far behind other provinces such as Quebec.
Now the bad news. According to the recently released PIRLS assessment (from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which measures the reading skills of nine-year-old and 10-year-old students worldwide), reading scores in every participating province except Quebec have declined significantly since 2006, especially in British Columbia where average reading scores dropped from 558 to 535. Considering that the median baseline is 500 points, if this trend continues B.C. students might soon fall below the international average.
Unfortunately, most provinces did not even participate in this latest PIRLS assessment, which was conducted in 2021 during the pandemic when many Canadian schools were closed for much of the year, particularly in Ontario. While Ontario initially intended to participate in the PIRLS assessment in the spring of 2021, school closures forced the province to postpone testing until the fall of 2021. Even then, the province was not able to fully participate.
Clearly, extended school closures hurt student learning. While it might have made sense to close schools temporarily at the beginning of the pandemic when there was only limited information about COVID-19, Ontario’s extended school closures that continued into 2021 were inexcusable. Schools today still struggle to deal with pandemic learning loss.
However, the problems with reading instruction extend far beyond the impacts of COVID. Last year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released Right to Read, a groundbreaking report on the state of reading instruction in the province. It found that while the evidence overwhelmingly supports the importance of phonics (learning how to sound out individual letters and letter combinations), Ontario schools were largely under the sway of the “three-cueing” approach to reading.
The three-cueing approach, which is also widely used in other provinces, encourages students to guess the meaning of words based on the surrounding context including other words or pictures. But the science of reading is clear—without systematic instruction in phonics, students are unlikely to become proficient readers, particularly if they come from disadvantaged homes or have learning disabilities.
Fortunately, the Ontario government took note of the Right to Read report and announced significant curriculum changes. But only time will tell whether the government’s newfound “back-to-basics” emphasis leads to improved student achievement.
Finally, while phonics is an essential component of effective reading instruction, it deals with only half the equation. Along with being able to sound out individual words, students must also understand what they mean. Research clearly identifies a strong causal relationship between background knowledge about the topic of an article and the ability to understand that article.
This is why it’s essential for students to learn as many facts as possible in school, particularly in earlier grades. Without extensive background knowledge, students are unlikely to become proficient readers. Thus, when provinces such as B.C. adopt new curriculum guides that downplay knowledge acquisition, parents should be concerned.
All students have the right to learn how to read, and subsequently increase their ability to learn and compete in a fast-changing world. Canadian schools must do a better job of ensuring they learn this vital skill.