Too many children are not learning to read in school, experts say

Cathy Dobson

The way children learn to read in school is not working and needs to be replaced, say two speech therapists.

“Let’s face it, if you can’t read or write, life is a lot harder,” said Marianne Ward.

Marianne neighborhood

When children don’t learn to read from kindergarten to grade 2, it affects their confidence, their mental health, they are bullied and often give up later, she said.

Ward grew up in Sarnia and now co-owns a private speech therapy clinic in Simcoe, Ontario. with fellow speech therapist Laura Downey.

The couple spoke last week at the Golden K Kiwanis Club in Sarnia-Lambton about a scathing report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission that found Ontario’s approach to early reading a failure.

“We know this is a hot topic…and this is our interpretation of what’s going on right now,” Downey said.

The OHRC survey found that only about 60% of students are able to read and write using the current system, Downey said. That number likely dropped during the pandemic, leaving perhaps half of all students struggling with literacy issues.

The report is “amazing,” Downey said. “The system fails students, especially those with reading disabilities, because they don’t use evidence-based practices.”

Laura Downey

EQAO’s Grade 3 tests show that 26% of students fell behind in reading and writing. For students with special educational needs, the number jumped to 53%.

“The system needs to be fixed,” Downey said. “Reading and writing should not be a privilege but a fundamental and essential human right.”

According to the OHRC’s report on the right to read, the crux of the matter is the balanced literacy approach currently used to teach reading in Ontario schools. Downey and Ward agree.

It’s an approach that uses cues and cues and other whole linguistic beliefs not backed by science, according to the report. Cueing systems rely heavily on memorization and may not work with at-risk students, Ward said.

Children with dyslexia and other special educational needs have trouble guessing and predicting text, which is fundamental to the cueing system.

It’s not effective because it doesn’t teach word-reading skills that rely on learning phonics, Ward said.

“We need instruction that applies to all readers and that’s where structured literacy comes in,” Downey said.

Structured literacy uses phonics and teaches letter sounds and letter combinations to encourage students to pronounce words.

The OHRC report contained more than 150 recommendations, including a return to structured literacy instruction. Studies show that using phonics to teach reading is successful 95% of the time, compared to 60% for balanced literacy, according to the report.

After the report was released three months ago, the Ontario Ministry of Education promised to revamp its language curriculum to focus on teaching word reading in the early grades.

The Right to Read Inquiry was the first of its kind in Canada and based its findings on input from Ontario’s eight public school boards, all 13 English-language public education faculties, the ministry and thousands of students, parents and educators.

Sarnia-Lambton Golden K has long been associated with local literacy. The club financially supports programs and members work with children on literacy skills through Literacy Lambton’s “Train Your Brain” program.

The number of struggling young readers has increased during the pandemic, said Tracy Pound, executive director of Literacy Lambton, who attended the zoom meeting with Ward and Downey.

Many parents are asking for help, and to meet the demand, Literacy Lambton is launching a free summer program called Reading Buddies on July 6, which matches adult volunteers with struggling readers.

We need volunteers to read with students in grades 1-4 at the downtown library. If you are interested, visit

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