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Opinion: New language arts curriculum protects children’s right to read

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A war is raging over Alberta’s curriculum review. This war has been public, relentless and highly political. What has been ignored all along is the low-key literacy scandal that has plagued Alberta schools for decades.

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Reviews of the new English Language Arts and Literature (ELAL) curriculum suggest that Alberta students are achieving a high level of reading performance. Two oft-cited metrics are the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Alberta Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT). PISA is problematic because it relies on small sample sizes, excludes data from federally-funded Indigenous schools, exempts many students with special needs, and mean scores depend on which countries provide data.

PATs do not specifically measure literacy, but rather students’ ability to apply the wide range of language arts learning outcomes. Students who have difficulty reading may benefit from accommodations, such as reading the test. Relying on measures that exclude and ignore already marginalized students is misleading.

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Most school districts in Alberta do not collect or publish literacy data. Those who do have historically reported that about 30% of students struggle with reading. These numbers have been further increased due to the learning loss associated with COVID.

A government of Alberta literacy initiative launched in 2021 may provide the most comprehensive data on literacy. To qualify for targeted literacy funding, students were assessed using strong reading screening agents. Seventy-three of 78 school jurisdictions and 36 independent private schools participated. The results were shocking. Thirty-eight thousand of the 112,069 students enrolled in grades 2 and 3 were identified as requiring reading intervention. Based on this data, one can only begin to imagine the extent of reader difficulties across the Alberta school system. Alberta is experiencing a literacy crisis.

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The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) recently released the Right to Read report. The OHRC concluded that “learning to read is not a privilege, but a basic and essential human right.” The full report recommends that curriculum and instruction reflect scientific research into the best approaches to teaching word reading. Ontario has committed to revising its curriculum to align with the recommendations of the Right to Read report by 2023.

The new ELAL program is not based on any particular program or philosophy. It is research-based and addresses the fundamental components of teaching reading such as phonological awareness, phonetics, fluency and vocabulary. Dr. George Georgiou, a world-renowned researcher from the University of Alberta, was the subject matter expert who oversaw its development. Dr. Georgiou has conducted research in several schools in Alberta and has partnered with entire school districts to dramatically improve literacy rates. The Alberta Teachers’ Association presented Dr. Georgiou with an Education Research Award for his “outstanding results” related to research conducted in Edmonton public schools.

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Dr. Georgiou’s work is simply miraculous. At an Edmonton-area school, teachers received training in best practices and the use of robust reading monitoring tools. Reading instruction and intervention have shifted to evidence-based approaches. In just four months, students in grades 1 through 6 showed six months to a year of academic growth in reading skills and the impacts continue to grow.

These results are even more remarkable given the ongoing COVID disruptions during this time. The pedagogical approaches used in this school and in Dr. Georgiou’s research reflect the approach to teaching literacy in the new ELAL curriculum.

The new ELAL program is based on current research. It responds to the recommendations of the OHRC report and ensures that all students have meaningful access to literacy. It will prevent the systematic discrimination of students who have difficulty reading and has the potential to significantly improve literacy rates for all students in Alberta.

Parents, educators, and school administrators must set aside this bitter political debate and adopt an ELAL program that will benefit all students.

Our children deserve better. They deserve the right to read.

Sarah Sarich is President of Decoding Dyslexia Alberta. We strive to raise awareness about dyslexia, empower families to support their children, and improve resources for students with reading difficulties in Alberta schools.

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