Learning How to Read Is a Fundamental Human Right

March 2, 2022 Updated: March 3, 2022


If you don’t learn how to read in school, you won’t learn much of anything else.

This statement sounds harsh, but it is the truth. Reading is a foundational skill in a modern country, and it is necessary for every professional occupation, whether blue collar or white collar. Anyone who lacks the ability to read has limited prospects as a citizen and as an employee.

Unfortunately, far too many students are unable to read effectively.

Data from the Education Quality Accountability Office (EQAO) reveals that one-in-four Ontario Grade 3 students and almost one-fifth of Grade 6 students did not meet the provincial reading standards. To make matters worse, that number rises to approximately 50 percent for students with special education needs.

It should come as little surprise that these abysmal results have attracted the attention of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). After all, if students with learning disabilities receive inadequate reading instruction, they are going to fall further behind their peers.

Not surprisingly, the OHRC’s “Right to Read” report paints a damning picture of Ontario’s approach to literacy in public schools. According to the OHRC, the Ontario language curriculum focuses on the three-cueing approach, which is basically a form of discovery/inquiry learning. Instead of providing students with direct and structured phonics instruction, teachers are directed to help students use various contextual clues to decipher the meaning of unfamiliar words.

The “Right to Read” report correctly notes that the three-cueing approach is not supported by the science of reading. In fact, it goes directly against the empirical evidence. In order to become proficient readers, most students need focused and structured lessons in phonics. They need to learn how to sound out individual letters and then use this skill to figure out unfamiliar words.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the OHRC report is that the evidence cited in it has been hiding in plain sight for decades. Back in the 1960s, Dr. Jeanne Chall, the former director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory, conducted extensive research into various strategies for teaching reading. She found that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that students need to learn phonics in a structured and systematic way.

However, Chall’s findings went against the ideological predispositions of the many progressive educators in faculties of education. These progressives, who dominated teacher training institutions, were attracted to Dr. Ken Goodman’s “whole language” approach. Whole language claimed that students did not need to sound out individual letters and could instead use contextual clues to identify the meaning of words. The three-cueing approach castigated in the OHRC report is essentially an offshoot of this failed whole language approach.

The longstanding dominance of whole language in education faculties has been devastating for students, particularly those with learning disabilities. Instead of being taught how to read using a method that is validated by scientific evidence, students are subjected to various forms of whole language instruction that have very limited effectiveness. Certainly, this is a human rights issue that must be addressed.

Fortunately, the Ontario government appears to be taking the OHRC report seriously. Education Minister Stephen Lecce recently announced that it will overhaul its K-8 literacy curriculum and invest $25 million in developing “evidence-based” reading instruction programs. This will be a positive development if it actually happens. Parents will be following this with keen interest.

However, it remains to be seen what this overhaul will look like. During the 2018 election campaign, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives pledged to replace discovery math with back-to-basics math. Not only did it take several years for the government to follow through on this pledge, but its implementation has been less than impressive.

Meaningful change in reading instruction will only happen if the Ford government looks beyond its own education department and the usual bevy of curriculum consultants that have provided advice in the past. Many of these consultants have built their entire careers on a progressive education ideology that includes a whole language approach to reading instruction. Placing these individuals in charge of a curriculum overhaul basically guarantees that not much will ever change.

The next few months will be crucial in Ontario. If students are going to receive the reading instruction that they need, the province must get serious about turning away from a failed progressive ideology. This means putting people in charge who are prepared to make the changes that need to happen.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”