Original Published on Jul 06, 2022 at 18:41

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Manitoba Human Rights Commission will investigate literacy education in response to dozens of reports about concerns the public school system is failing students with learning disabilities.

Once the 2022-23 school year gets underway, the commission plans to announce a “special project” that will involve consultations with youth, parents, teachers and K-12 leaders about literacy issues. The final report, expected before 2024, will make recommendations.

“What parents and learners have reported to us is that they’ve gone their entire education experience without really fundamentally learning some basic reading skills, and the supports that they have received have helped them coast by,” said executive director Karen Sharma.

Sharma said there are concerns about teaching approaches, diagnosis delays and insufficient accommodations that are preventing students from receiving their fundamental right to education and freedom from discrimination.

Pandemic health orders have interfered with face-to-face support and intervention quality, she noted.

Earlier this year, the Ontario commission released the stark findings of its Right to Read inquiry: Ontario’s schooling system — which, like Manitoba, embraces “balanced literacy” — is not using evidence-based approaches to teach students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities to read.

“The best way to teach all students to read words is through direct, explicit, systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills,” the authors wrote.

The report intensifies the debate between two schools of thought: explicit phonics instruction and balanced literacy. Simply put, phonics stresses the importance of teaching reading systematically by focusing on mastering letter-sound associations, recognizing sound patterns and decoding words.

Proponents of the latter strategy are keen to balance explicit language instruction with constructing meaning in literature. Balanced literacy teachers promote memorization and the use of context, including visual cues, to figure out the meaning of unknown words through this method and gradually introduce them to more complex texts.

“They encourage guessing. So if you see a word you don’t know, rather than try to sound it out, you have to guess meaning from a sentence,” said Linda Siegel, a consultant on the Right to Read report and professor emeritus of educational and counselling psychology at the University of British Columbia.

As far as Siegel is concerned, the status quo gives kids an inefficient strategy to learn how to read — if it even allows them to grow into readers at all.

Balanced literacy was born out of worries about so-called “drill and kill,” the notion that repetition — be it while learning phonemic awareness or other skills — can bore children.

Siegel, however, said that structured literacy can promote the joy of reading.

“(Phonics) is not just teaching the sounds in a vacuum. It’s very much in the context of vocabulary, learning sentence structure, teaching reading material that is interesting,” she said.

Notably, Manitoba’s English Language Arts curriculum framework does not mention phonics once in 42 pages.

Twila Richards, a trained teacher who tutors students with disabilities, mobilized Manitobans with concerns about the status quo and prompted the Manitoba commission to undertake its new project.

“Spelling rules have to be explicitly taught (to students with learning disabilities),” said Richards — who knows firsthand what the consequences can be, including the onset of anxiety and low-self-esteem, if that does not happen.

Not only does she have a child who has dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia, but Richards also struggled with learning to read, write, spell and do math in school, although she does not have a formal diagnosis.

Jennifer Rodrigue said she has witnessed “a complete 180 (degree turn)” in her daughter since her youngest child, who was diagnosed with dyslexia several years ago, started attending a private school for students with learning disabilities in Winnipeg.

It was not until the summer after her daughter’s Grade 5 year that the mother of three said she fully realized her daughter could not read independently.

Unable to get support through the public school system, the family sought a diagnosis from a private clinician and did their own research. They hired a tutor and later enrolled their youngest in the Laureate Academy.

“I don’t think families should have to go outside of (public) school so that their kids can learn basic literacy skills. That’s a right, not what your family can notice and afford,” Rodrigue said, adding she thinks change needs to happen at the faculty of education level to better equip teacher candidates with knowledge on how to effectively teach students with learning disabilities.

The University of Manitoba’s acting dean of education said both an emphasis on the connection between sounds and symbols, as well as focusing on comprehension, meaning and context are valuable tools to teach students how to read.

“What we would emphasize in teaching teachers how to teach children is that there are lots of different ways that kids learn how to read,” said U of M professor Charlotte Enns.

“But in the end, they need to be able to do both those things: they need to be able to decode and comprehend, or it’s not reading.”

In an emailed statement, a provincial spokesperson indicated Manitoba is “committed to continuous improvement grounded in high-quality evidence-based research and educators’ experience.”

This item reprinted with permission from Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba