Ontario Needs to Get Serious About Improving Reading Instruction

October 18, 2021 Updated: October 18, 2021


The reading skills of Ontario students are showing marked improvement—at least according to the Ontario government. As evidence, government officials point to the fact that reading scores on the Grades 3 and 6 Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) assessments increased steadily between 2005 and 2019.

This certainly looks like good news. But, like many government claims, it should be taken with a grain of salt. This is particularly true when we consider that other standardized assessments, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, failed to show any significant increase over the same time period.

It’s also important to note that nearly one in five Ontario students are now writing the EQAO assessments with “assistive technology.” This means that questions are being read orally to a significant number of students. Not only that, teachers or other volunteers are often writing down the answers for these students.

In other words, it’s possible for students to pass the EQAO reading assessment without doing any actual reading or writing. No wonder reading scores are going up!

The reality is that, when it comes to improving reading skills, Ontario has a long way to go. Playing a shell game with the EQAO results might be good for public relations, but it won’t help students become better readers. Real improvement requires real changes.

Fortunately, there has been a lot of research into how to teach reading. One thing we know for sure is that some methods are better than other methods. Specifically, research is clear that good readers are able to do two things—decode words and understand what those words mean. Decoding and comprehension are equally important.

When it comes to decoding words, phonics (sounding out individual letters in words) is essential. Back in the 1960s, Dr. Jeanne Chall, the former director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory, conducted extensive research on reading instruction and found that explicit phonics instruction was superior to other instructional approaches. Her findings have been confirmed by many other scholars over the years.

For example, Dr. John Hattie, in his seminal 2009 book “Visible Learning,” summarized the results of thousands of educational research studies. In the section about reading instruction, Hattie concluded that phonics was “powerful in the process of learning to read.”

Unfortunately, Ontario schools currently make only limited use of phonics. Instead, schools typically employ a far less effective method known as whole language. In a whole language classroom, students are encouraged to guess the correct words by examining the context and looking at pictures. While whole language is popular in the education faculties where teachers are trained, it’s not a good way to teach reading.

A recent report by the International Dyslexia Association of Ontario reveals that many Ontario teachers are relying on ineffective teaching methods. For example, the Ontario Ministry of Education continues to mandate the “three-cueing” approach to teaching reading skills.

The three-cueing approach is basically a dressed-up version of whole language as it encourages students to guess the correct word meaning based on various contextual clues. Guessing the word meaning is decidedly inferior to knowing how letters join together to become specific words. Without an adequate understanding of phonics, students are unlikely to become proficient at decoding.

However, reading is not just about decoding individual words. Being able to say the words takes students only halfway there. In order to read effectively, you must also understand what you are reading. If you know nothing about the topic of an article, you will struggle to understand it.

This means that Ontario schools must also place a much stronger emphasis on the acquisition of subject-specific content knowledge, particularly in the early grades when students are building up their general-knowledge base. Instead of spending hours working on generic reading comprehension strategies, students should learn as many facts as possible about science, history, and literature.

In short, phonics is the key to decoding new words while content knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. A solid reading instruction program needs both of these components in order to succeed.

Thus, if the Ontario government is serious about improving reading instruction, it needs to replace ineffective methods with research-based methods. Ontario students deserve real results, not just political posturing.

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.”