Nova Scotia's new learning-to-read plan still doesn't go far enough, say critics

Nova Scotia is introducing a new framework to teach children how to read, but critics say more work needs to be done. (Shutterstock/Syda Productions - image credit)
Nova Scotia is introducing a new framework to teach children how to read, but critics say more work needs to be done. (Shutterstock/Syda Productions - image credit)

Schools in Nova Scotia are adopting a new, phonics-centered approach to literacy, but some critics say the province needs to outline a clear plan for implementation if it hopes to change reading outcomes for young students.

The new strategy by Nova Scotia's Department of Education, first released last year and expected to be implemented fully this fall, is built upon six pillars of literacy and puts greater emphasis on phonics. Instruction in phonics teaches students to sound out words letter by letter, or by letter combinations, rather than trying to read the whole word all at once

"The goal of the six pillars is to develop and support all young learners as growing readers and writers who are competent and confident users of literacy," Chris Boulter, executive director of education, innovation, programs and services for the Department of Education, told Information Morning Nova Scotia this week.

But Jamie Metsala, the Gail and Stephen Jarislowsky chair in learning disabilities at Mount Saint Vincent University, believes the province's new approach doesn't go far enough.

Recent provincial assessment results show reading scores were below their grade level for nearly 1 in 3 students in Grade 3, something Metsala attributes in part to the province's current use of a controversial approach to learning called balanced literacy. The approach, known as cueing, teaches students to figure out a word through context, including how it looks and sounds, and if it makes sense next to the words that precede it.

"I think that adding a phonics patch to largely ineffective practices and balanced literacy will not turn around reading instruction or reading achievement across the province," said Metsala.

Critics of the system, like Scott Adamson, a retired English teacher and former Chignecto-Central Regional School Board member, say that because cueing doesn't teach students to properly decode words using phonics, many children fall behind.

Another issue in the province is the use of levelled books, which gradually become more difficult as the students progress, Adamson says. Students may initially do well by guessing words, but later encounter troubles once they move beyond "predictable" texts.

"That's not what kids are going to be getting in the advanced grades ... They're going to be getting greater complexity and sentence structure," he said.

"What happens when they run into that? Well, what happens is many of them — especially the ones who are really struggling — hit a brick wall."

Balanced literacy scuttled elsewhere

Nova Scotia's move to a "six pillars" framework comes in the wake of sweeping changes to how reading is taught at elementary schools in New Brunswick, Alberta, and Ontario, where a landmark Right to Read Report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission recommended a dramatic overhaul of its literacy curriculum.

Janet French/ CBC News
Janet French/ CBC News

That report, which Metsala consulted on, advised the province to discontinue the use of balanced literacy "cueing systems for word reading and instead require mandatory explicit, systematic and direct instruction in foundational word reading skills."

Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta have since removed the approach from their curricula, but Nova Scotia has not.

Continuing to use this method is at odds with a phonics-based approach to literacy, said Metsala.

"What we know from the research is that teaching in an explicit manner … building up to learning the whole system works more effectively," she said.

When asked if teachers will continue to use balanced literacy, a representative from the Department of Education told CBC News via email that "teachers know their students as individual learners and plan appropriate next steps of instruction to meet the individual student's needs."

Extensive training plan needed

The six pillars are best looked at as a first step toward change, said Metsala, but a thorough plan needs to be in place to ensure the new framework is adopted uniformly at schools across the province.

"I don't think we've seen a plan at this point in time for many of the steps that are needed to go from this abstract document with six pillars, to how these are going to be implemented in the classroom and how we're going to support teachers," she said.

It's also still unclear how and when teachers will be giving training on the new framework, Metsala added.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education told CBC News, "Regional Centres for Education provide professional learning to teachers with support from the department and we anticipate full implementation this fall."

Meanwhile, the department says work to amend the province's literacy curriculum is ongoing, but no date was given for when changes may be implemented.