Charity stresses importance of monitoring province's literacy programs

Charity stresses importance of monitoring province's literacy programs

New Brunswick's new literacy strategy must be closely monitored to ensure literacy rates improve in the long term, says the director of a charity that teaches young students to read.

"For me, that's what's really critical, and that's what, in a large way, is missing in New Brunswick," said Erin Schryer, executive director of Elementary Literacy Inc.

"Do we really have the data to suggest what we are doing is even working? So let's start gathering that data."

The Gallant government released its new literacy strategy earlier this week. It calls for supporting parents to improve literacy at home, taking into account differences in learning styles, and broadening the terms of literacy to include numeracy or digital literacy.

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The province says it will spend $7 million a year for literacy programming for both children and adults in 2017 and 2018 and it pledged nearly $2 million to help hire 35 new literacy leads, or literacy teachers.

The strategy also calls for an annual evaluation to make sure best practices are being incorporated.

Targeted evaluation

Schryer, who spoke to CBC's Information Morning on Friday, said there is a history of changing or cutting literacy programs in New Brunswick.

For example, she said, the 35 positions the province has announced for literacy leads were cut from the program in 2010.

And there's little official data on what impact those teachers had on students, she said.

Her own informal research suggests the leads helped increase student achievement, and since they were cut "it was suggested perhaps that's why we're seeing achievement go down," Schryer said.

"In that way it's great that we are going to have more of them in the schools, but I think we need to be really targeted with our plan for evaluation of what exactly the impact is. 

"To survive multiple governments, because this is a long-term strategy … I think what we need to do is ensure any of the tactics that are taken are based on evidence [and] are known to be effective."

Small groups best

Heather Smith, former president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association and now president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, cautioned against celebrating the program's successes before seeing the long-term results.

She said provincial schools have long taken a broad approach to teaching literacy skills, including interpersonal communication skills and computer and math skills.

Timely, targeted intervention in small groups has proven to be the most effective way to improve literacy, she said.

But Smith warned against over-assessing.

"If so much time is spend assessing whether you are doing well, then in schools you don't have the full time or the necessary time to actually do the work of the teaching," she said.

Welcome approach

The Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick welcomed the government's approach.

"Literacy doesn't happen in a vacuum, literacy is something people experience in every aspect of their lives," said Christy McLean, executive director of the coalition.

"This report recognizes that there are many different ways to approach literacy."

When asked whether the new strategy would improve literacy rates in New Brunswick, McLean said broadening the definition is important since it recognizes that successful literacy goes beyond the classroom.

She used the example of a truck driver who needs digital literacy to use a GPS. Recognizing digital literacy is an important aspect of teaching adult literacy, she said.

"This is about how we go about implementing comprehensive strategies, tools, and providing information to people so that it addresses the different ways that people enter into that literacy journey," she said.

"People may have very strong literacies in different aspects of their lives and its taking those strengths and building on those and introducing other types of literacy whatever their strengths or aptitudes are or whatever their literacies are."