Early Reading Strategy

The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario, 2003

Setting the Context

A child's success in school and throughout life depends in large part on the ability to read. Educators in Ontario have the profound challenge of making reading a reality for all children.

The demands of the information age require that people be competent readers and writers if they are to participate and thrive in society. There is keen awareness that the public education system must therefore focus on providing children with the best possible reading instruction. A broad consensus now exists among researchers and educators regarding the knowledge and skills that children need in order to read, the experience that influences the development of such knowledge and skills, and the basic components of reading instruction. The purpose of this report is to draw practical conclusions from the evidence and put them in the hands of Ontario educators so that teachers can make a difference where it matters most – in the classroom.

While this report has been written primarily for teachers of Kindergarten to Grade 3, its message is important for everyone in Ontario with an interest in early reading achievement, including school and board administrators, parents, early childhood educators, community partners, and faculties of education.

The Ontario Context

Addressing the teaching of reading in Ontario begins with an understanding that there are two official languages in use in the province. Seventy-seven per cent of Ontarians have English as a first language. Franco-Ontarians, who represent 5.4 per cent of the population, constitute a minority with established historical educational rights. About 18 per cent of Ontarians have a first language other than English or French. With immigrants representing almost 25 per cent of Ontario's population, there is rich cultural diversity in many of the province's classrooms. In some large urban school boards there are 75 or more different home languages and dialects spoken by the students. This diversity in student backgrounds has many implications for early reading instruction. It is not, in itself, an obstacle to reading achievement, provided that the students have a solid foundation in their first language and support for attaining fluency in the language of instruction.

All Ontario children have a right to an English-language education. Parents with rights under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are also guaranteed the option of a French-language education for their children. The majority of students receiving a publicly funded education (approximately 96 per cent) are enrolled in English-language schools. Approximately nine per cent of those students attend French immersion programs. The other four per cent of Ontario students are enrolled in French-language schools.

This report affirms that the basic components of effective reading instruction are the same whether the language of instruction is English or French. However, the English and French school systems face different challenges in meeting the needs of their students.

English-language Instruction

Being in the majority, English-language schools have access to a greater variety of reading resources, especially levelled texts. Because English permeates the culture, children have daily opportunities to hear, speak, and see it – at school, on the street, in libraries, stores, and theatres, through street signs, books, magazines, newspapers, television, radio, movies, and more.

Many children come to school speaking a language other than standard English. Those who lack basic skills in English should receive additional instruction in English as a second language (ESL) or English literacy development (ELD). ESL is designed for students who have little or no fluency in English, although they are fluent in another language. ELD is for students who speak a variation of English that differs from standard English, or who have had limited prior schooling, and who need help to improve their skills in reading, writing, and oral communication. At the elementary level, ESL and ELD are support programs or interventions, rather than separate curriculum subjects. ESL/ELD students need time and assistance to develop the skills that will enable them to take full advantage of their schooling and meet the expectations of the Ontario curriculum. Because this support can be crucial in helping children to succeed, not only in reading but in all subjects, teachers need to incorporate ESL/ELD approaches and strategies throughout the curriculum.

French-language Instruction

The environment is different for children learning to read in French. Depending on the community in which they live, they may have limited exposure to the French language outside of the classroom. In addition, it is a challenge to find reading resources such as levelled texts that are adapted to the Franco-Ontarian context.

The school may be the only place where the children are exposed to French in a meaningful and consistent way. It becomes critical, then, that the school be a place steeped in French language and culture, and that support programs be strong and readily available. These programs include Actualisation Linguistique du Français (ALF) and Perfectionnement du Français (PDF). ALF is designed for children who are entitled to attend French-language schools and who have little or no fluency in French. It provides the children with the linguistic and cultural skills they need for learning. The PDF curriculum is a basic literacy program and an orientation to Canadian culture for new Canadians. These children may have had schooling in another country, but their schooling was disrupted or the system was very different from the Franco-Ontarian system, and so they lack rudimentary skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. PDF provides instructional support and familiarizes the children with both the Franco-Ontarian education system and their new social and cultural environment.

About the Early Reading Panel

The Early Reading Panel was composed of members from a wide range of constituencies involved in reading. Teachers, consultants, principals, school board administrators, academics and researchers – from English, French, and Aboriginal communities – worked together to share their expertise in the field of reading. The panel reviewed and discussed a wide range of research on reading to produce a report that outlines effective instruction and defines good practices for teaching reading to all Ontario children. The panel's guiding principles, and the key themes of this report, are summed up by four beliefs.

Belief #1: Reading instruction should be based on the evidence of sound research that has been verified by classroom practice.

Despite the widely different conclusions and practices advocated by individual research papers or particular programs, there is an important consensus in the scientific community about the teaching of reading. Good research informs educators about the components of an effective reading program. The research is clear in showing that effective reading instruction compensates for risk factors that might otherwise prevent children from becoming successful readers.

This report takes an important step in capturing the best knowledge currently available to guide teachers in early reading instruction. Reading research needs to continue in order to ensure that our public education system has the information it needs to support improvement in the future.

Belief #2: Early success in reading is critical for children.

Reading success is the foundation for achievement throughout the school years. There is a critical window of opportunity from the ages of four to seven for children to learn to read. Research on early reading difficulties is very clear: children who continue to experience reading difficulties in Grade 3 seldom catch up later. It makes sense to detect problems early in order to avoid the escalation of problems later.

Belief #3: The teacher is the key to a child's success in learning to read.

A major consensus of research is that the ability of teachers to deliver good reading instruction is the most powerful factor in determining how well children learn to read. It is essential to recognize the critical role teachers play in preventing reading difficulties and to provide teachers at all grade levels with the best and most up-to-date knowledge and skills to teach reading and promote literacy. This understanding can help to ensure that teachers are not mere consumers of packaged products or programs, but are informed and critical thinkers who are able to make wise choices that consider the needs of the children and accomplish the goals of reading instruction.

Belief #4: In order to succeed in the classroom, teachers need the cooperation and support of instructional leaders at the school and board level who value and provide ongoing professional development.

Effective early reading instruction does not happen in isolation. It involves not only primary classroom teachers but all partners in the education system. Recognizing the importance of a system-wide, supportive approach to reading instruction, this report addresses issues regarding leadership, the development of the expertise of teachers, and the role of the home and the community. All partners play a significant role in ensuring that the conditions are right for teachers to provide effective instruction and for children to learn to the best of their ability.

Building on Common Ground

When passions for the outcome run high, and opinions are diverse, working together to find solutions that will make a meaningful difference for all children can be a huge challenge. We know what it's like: we members of the Early Reading Panel came from diverse backgrounds and brought to the table the perspectives of years of experience in our own milieus. It was indeed a challenge to recognize and address our differences, especially within the constraints of our mandate and timeline. Nevertheless, we found common ground in our passion for ensuring that all children learn to read and our conviction that good teaching makes the difference. With those fixed points to guide us, we discovered that our diversity was a strength that enabled us to see problems from many angles, draw on a wider range of resources, test our assumptions, and support our conclusions.

We recognize that this report is not an end in itself, but a contribution to an ongoing process. We offer it to the people of Ontario with our thanks for the opportunity to travel together this far on the journey.

Panel Members

Dany Laveault (Co-chair)
Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa

Bonnie McEachern (Co-chair)
Upper Grand District School Board

Mary Anne Alton
Bluewater District School Board

Chantal Bergeron
Conseil scolaire de district des écoles catholiques du Sud-Ouest

Johanne Bourdages
Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa

Cécile Champagne-Muzar
Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa

Thérèse McNamara
Curriculum Consultant
Simcoe County District School Board

France Nicolas
Conseil scolaire de district catholique du Centre-Est de l'Ontario

Julia O'Sullivan
Dean of Education, Lakehead University
National Director, Centre of Excellence for Children and Adolescents with Special Needs

Pat Prentice
Curriculum Consultant
Durham District School Board

Angela Puma
Curriculum Consultant
Toronto Catholic District School Board

Brenda Davis
Six Nations

Joan Fallis
Grand Erie District School Board

Colleen French
Toronto Catholic District School Board

Annie Gaudreault
Curriculum Consultant
Conseil scolaire de district du Centre Sud-Ouest

Alyson McLelland
Toronto District School Board

Mary McGuire
Curriculum Consultant
York Catholic District School Board

Colleen Russell
Principal Toronto
District School Board

Julie St-Onge
Assistant Professor
Faculty of Education, Laurentian University

Sharon Turnbull-Schmitt
Toronto District School Board

Lesly Wade-Woolley
Assistant Professor
Faculty of Education, Queen's University

Dale Willows
Institute of Child Study, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto